Why flying cars are better than electric ones
Schizoid techno-piety condemns us all to misery
Comment Once upon a time, NASA had a flying-car programme. Then that was shut down, and a rather cheapskate annual flying-car competition was set up instead. This year there's a further downgrade: the event is no longer the "Personal Air Vehicle Challenge", but the "General Aviation Technology Challenge". It kicks off in California this week.
Competing teams will field a variety of tweaked motor-gliders, light sport planes and ordinary Cessnas of the kind which have been flying almost unchanged for 50 years. There will be prizes for fuel economy, quietness and ease of handling. NASA says that the compo will seek to "maximize fuel efficiency, reduce noise and improve safety", and that it should "result in aircraft with less negative impacts on the environment". This year, there's even a "Green Prize". There's already been an Electric Aircraft Symposium.
In other words, the whole thing is now basically a bit of greenwash for the beleaguered General Aviation (GA) sector, the assembled private pilots and air-sports enthusiasts of America*.
It's all a bit of a comedown from the original NASA PAV plans, funded to the tune of $10m and intended to produce a demonstrator "Tailfan" aircraft by 2009. The PAV programme had lofty goals: it would produce quiet, fast, affordable planes which could take off with less than 100 metres of runway.
These wonder-machines would soon be equipped with almost entirely automated "synthetic vision" controls, such that the user would only need to type in an address and the plane would do the rest - happily navigating itself through crowded skies and bad weather to set down on another micro-airstrip near the destination. PAVs might also be road-legal, able to fold their wings and drive onward to park right outside the desired door.
That's not quite a Jetsons flying car - no hovering, no getting out at the office window - but it's pretty close.
But such fripperies are out of tune with the times, it seems. Nowadays, nobody's interested in technology unless it goes in your pocket or your living room, and even then the fact that it might draw as much as a watt on standby or charge makes it a sinful delight. (Unlike multi-kilowatt luxuries such as personal hygiene, clean laundry, hot food and drink - these are all basic human rights, apparently.)
High-powered, serious, arse-kicking technologies like aircraft are yucky - you shouldn't even use them at all, really, not even for annual holidays. Aspiring to personally own such things (or at any rate have the use of one) is disgustingly selfish and environmentally unaware. About the only large piece of kit the "tech"-fancying online hive-mind can really bring itself to love is electric cars, seen as the solution to pretty much any problem you care to name - though nobody wants to say just where all the 'leccy is going to come from.
Thus the PAV programme is cut, and then even the cheapskate tech-prize effort becomes focused on green damage limitation for the existing GA community, rather than a huge expansion and enhancement.
But that's only right and proper, surely. Even a climate-change denier would admit that energy and resources are scarce and rising in price, right? It would be madly profligate for us all to aspire to flying cars, when so many people in the world don't even have normal ones - or even proper roads to drive them on.
That's an interesting point, in fact. Consider what Mark Moore, once of the NASA PAV programme, had to say about the subject:
While not the solution to all travel, PAVs would provide a new, better choice for mid range trip distances of 50 to 500 miles where airlines and automobiles provide poor block speed service... this travel market accounts for almost half of all person trip miles in the US... An analogy is presented to the computer industry which has transformed itself over the past 30 years from a highly centralized market solution, into an incredibly distributed market solution...
PAV sector technologies will provide a dramatic improvement for near-term rural and regional travel... The far-term vehicle technologies will address suburban and urban travel needs... achieving a door-to-door block speed of nearly four times that of automobiles which currently achieve an average speed of 32 mph...
In other words, you could build ordinary cars, and of course these can be quite economical with energy-per-mile-travelled compared to flying ones**. Electric ground cars could do better still. But for people to use them you must first build roads, a resource-hungry and environmentally damaging process and one which almost never manages to satisfy demand in urban areas. (In rural or undeveloped areas, however, you often waste resources putting in a road which won't be much used. The road must still be there, though, or the locals' lives become very hard.) But because roads seldom run in straight lines between point of departure and destination, the ground cars wind up doing a lot more miles than flying ones would. Often the ground cars sit in traffic jams, probably wasting fuel and emitting carbon - and definitely wasting time.
Alternatively, you might build flying cars. They'll use more fuel/energy per passenger mile than cars on the face of it - but because they don't sit about in traffic jams and travel as the crow flies, you'll probably get an economy/emissions win straight off. (Yes, airliners sit in traffic jams: but this is because they need big runways and make a lot of noise, so they can only land at a very few locations. Everyone sharing a few big machines sometimes doesn't work as well as letting people have their own small ones.) Better still, with flying cars you don't need to build new roads to any serious degree, either in urban areas or rural undeveloped ones. You've saved a very large proportion of the road miles people would otherwise drive.
Overall, you save on environmental impact. The flying car in isolation doesn't appear to be very green, but in the bigger transport picture it's a pretty green idea. The undeveloped, car-deprived world might thank you, in fact, for allowing them to skip out the massive-roadbuilding stage of industrialisation and move directly to the point where people mostly fly. No need to lay ugly ribbons of energy-intensive, high-maintenance tar all over the planet, so that everyone can reach shops and hospitals and schools in a timely fashion; no need for everyone to suffer gridlock. Move the heavy freight on the surface if you will - though actually there may be no need to - but human beings should aspire to higher things. A clever, automated air-traffic infrastructure able to handle swarms of flying cars is surely a more elegant solution than another six lanes added to the motorways.
Of course, all this only works for flying cars which ordinary-ish people can afford and use. That means you need to make things as simple as possible for the designers. Building an affordable machine which takes off quietly in 100m is already very hard; screwing down on fuel economy or demanding that it run on batteries will make it impossible, certainly for a long time.
That would surely be a case of penny wise and pound foolish, if you actually care about saving resources and energy and green space - as opposed to merely enjoying a bit of pious, pseudo-green short-termism. ®
*And to a large extent, the rest of us too. We all fly Cessnas; and indeed last year's PAV challenge was won by a Czech-made aircraft flown by an Australian.
**Some contenders at the NASA event are actually very economical or even electric: Pipistrel motor-gliders can cruise at 50 miles per gallon, and there's a battery option - though this last can't stay up sustainably unless the thermals are in your favour. However, these airframes will never be short-takeoff, roadable PAVs. The planned NASA Tailfan would have been driven by a thirsty-looking V8 car engine. The Terrafugia Transition roadable is probably more representative of what could be expected, at 25 mpg.