NEW YORK – 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. 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?
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. If there’s a lot of commercial air traffic, unscheduled flights will likely be denied. 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.
Every metropolitan area with an international airport (just about every major metropolitan area in the country) has 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 320 kilometers per hour. Traffic controllers usually require at least five km 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.
Elaine Ou is a blockchain engineer at Global Financial Access, a financial technology company in San Francisco..
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