Where Flying Cars Might Take Us
I’ve always thought that the fastest way to get flying cars would be to spread rumors that China built one first. Well, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority just announced that they have a Chinese-made flying car, and intend to put flying taxis in service this summer. Meanwhile, we’re still anticipating the flying cars promised by Uber Inc., Airbus Group SE, Larry Page’s companies, and nearly a century’s worth of aviation pioneers.
Why wait? Airborne urban transport has long existed in the form of helicopters. 1 There's no legal prohibition against parking one in your backyard and buzzing to work every day. Trade-a-Plane has lots of listings ready to fly for less than the cost of a Tesla Model S. If flying cars can solve our transportation problems, why don’t we have more heli-commuters?
The answer might have something to do with this:
It’s a map of the airspace above New York City. Just like driving would be easy if there weren’t so many other cars, flying would be easy if it weren’t for all the other stuff in the air.
We tend to think of blue sky as a free-for-all, but the Federal Aviation Administration has strict rules controlling where aircraft can go. The concentric circles around Newark, LaGuardia, and JFK airports represent class B airspace, which means a flying vehicle must request permission to take off or enter. If there’s a lot of commercial air traffic, unscheduled flights will likely be denied. Here is a live feed of air traffic communications at LaGuardia. Here is a live map of all the commercial jets that will get priority over a flying car. Unless a pilot plans to commute in the middle of the night, the control tower probably won’t want to hear about their request to get to work. And if an airborne car enters the space without prior clearance, the pilot can expect an interception from a military jet or Coast Guard helicopter. 2
Every metropolitan area with an international airport (just about every major metropolitan area in the country) has similar airspace restrictions. The rules are designed to keep airplanes from knocking each other out of the sky and terrorizing the people on the ground. Commercial jets need a lot of controlled airspace because they’re maneuvering at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour. Traffic controllers usually require at least three miles of separation between aircraft -- departing jets cover this distance in less than a minute.
Airborne navigation allows for more degrees of freedom, but it leaves no room for error. A car can endure a fender-bender on the road and still get you to work, while a mid-air collision inevitably leads to a very bad day. There are external considerations as well: A vehicle that falls out of the urban sky will almost certainly land on something expensive.
The places where flying cars are most desirable just happen to be the places where they’ll be the most dangerous. That was also true of the first terrestrial cars. In the late 19th century, cities had narrow roads and no lane markings, so early automobiles crashed into children, pedestrians, storefronts and each other. Motor vehicles terrified horses and frequently caused them to bolt with their carriages.
After many decades of gruesome accidents, cities are somewhat better equipped to support the coexistence of cars and pedestrians. The bigger effect of car ownership was that people gained the ability to spread out from cities. Roads were built to serve motor vehicles, and new commercial and industrial centers sprang up along the way. Most of the last century has been spent in an auto-fueled suburban sprawl.
If flying cars become popular, they are likely to ease urban traffic problems the same way our cars did. Not by buzzing over gridlock, but by expanding the areas where people are able to live and work. This time, the sprawl won’t be limited to the locations around our roads and highways.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
“Flying car” used to mean roadable aircraft, but today it refers to any personal flying vehicle that lets people beat traffic.
New York does leave a narrow corridor over the Hudson River where small aircraft can transition through the airspace without bothering the jets, but they have to stay below 1300 feet. It’s not terribly helpful to working commuters unless they plan to park in the Hudson.
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