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Quartz Obsession — Flying cars — Card 1
As part of our ongoing obsession with rethinking cities, we’re bringing you a six-week bonus series on the future of mobility. It will land in your inbox on Mondays, while the regular edition will touch down on Wednesday as usual. This is Week 3!
For as long as there have been planes and automobiles, people have been hoping to hitch a ride to the future in a flying car. From the Jetsons to Peter Thiel, flying cars have been a shorthand for our utopian future. But for a long time, they never took off—technological struggles, regulatory issues, and money problems weighed the imaginative enterprises down. Now, inventors are trying to get cars in the sky once again, this time with the hope of reducing traffic on the ground and making transportation greener in the process. Despite ample funding from venture capitalists, the question remains: Will flying cars ever get off the ground?
Let’s go off-road.
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Quartz Obsession — Flying cars — Card 2
18: The number of companies working to bring flying cars to market by 2025, as of 2019
26: The number of “distinct technical hurdles” standing in the way of flying cars
27 minutes: The amount of time the battery-powered flying car 2X, created by German startup Volocopter, can remain airborne
$400,000: Anticipated cost of the Terrafugia Transition, a two-seater vehicle with foldable wings
$40-$50: The projected price of a single ride in a flying taxi
$140 million: The annual venture capitalist investment in flying cars between 2016 and 2018
$1.5 trillion: Estimated market value for flying cars by 2040
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Quartz Obsession — Flying cars — Card 3
Traditionally, there have been two main reasons for sending cars skyward: reducing congestion—and commute times. In theory, enabling people to drive on the road and fly just above it would double our space for traffic. In the process, it would improve ground speeds and allow flying cars, which would theoretically go 150 miles an hour (241 km/h), to shepherd suburban residents to urban centers in minutes. More recently, however, advocates have begun to envision a flying car-only future, in the hopes of repatriating the streets to pedestrians.
But hybridizing machinery has historically required a “debilitating compromise,” design consultant Peter Stevens told The Guardian. Cars and airplanes, for example, “have completely different types of engines,” John Brown, a roadable aircraft expert, told the New York Times. “Also, cars have an aerodynamic that makes them hug the ground, whereas an aircraft is designed to do just the opposite. And cars need even weight distribution on all four wheels, while an aircraft has 90 percent of its weight on the back wheels.” The two vehicles also require different skills: flying car owners must be licensed drivers and licensed pilots—this, in a world where most people can hardly handle merging on a highway.
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Quartz Obsession — Flying cars — Card 5
1841: William Samuel Henson and John Stringfellow patent the Henson Aerial Steam Carriage—a flying car before there were cars.
1886: German inventor Karl Benz patents the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, considered the first modern car.
1903: The Wright brothers take the Wright Flyer, their heavier-than-air powered plane, on four successful test flights.
1917: Aviator Glenn Curtiss builds what is likely the first “roadable aircraft”—basically a Ford Model T with three wings—but it can hardly take off.
1928: After two years of development, Henry Ford stops plans for production on the Ford Flivver, once marketed as the “Model T of the Air,” after the prototype crashes in a fatal accident.
1962: The Jetsons, set in a cartoon world of robots, aliens, and flying cars, premieres on ABC. Despite only lasting one season—more episodes were made in the 1980s—its vision of the future persisted.
1990: Boeing engineers reportedly invest $6 million in the Sky Commuter before scrapping the project.
2003: The US Securities and Exchange Commission hits Canadian engineer Paul Moller with a $50,000 fine for selling unregistered stock on the internet in order to get his M400 flying car aloft. (It didn’t work.)
2023: The target date for Uber Elevate to launch “small fleets” of electric flying cars in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne.
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Quartz Obsession — Flying cars — Card 6
Flying cars have taken many forms throughout history, but current developers are primarily focused on developing helicopters that are faster, cheaper, safer, and quieter so that they can function within cities. These machines can rise directly off the ground (or, potentially, water) without any need for a runway. Crucially, they run on battery power, not oil; another name for these vehicles is electric vertical take-off and landing, or eVTOL, aircraft. Relying on batteries should reduce the aircraft’s carbon footprint and allow them to quietly pass over the cityscape.
But some researchers remain skeptical of flying car companies’ green promises. Enabling super-commutes could lead to sprawl. Public means of travel are almost always more sustainable than private ones. And, technologically, flying cars “are going to be more energy efficient than helicopters that use a lot of fuel but they will be less energy efficient than cars because they have to lift themselves,” Ella Atkins, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, recently told the New York Times. The solution might just be a matter of mileage: VTOLs are more efficient the longer they fly, so reserving these machines for trips more than 60 miles (97 km) could tip the calculus in their favor.
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Quartz Obsession — Flying cars — Card 8
“If you love drones above your house, you’ll really love vast numbers of ‘cars’ flying over your head that are 1,000 times bigger and noisier and blow away anything that isn’t nailed down when they land”
—Elon Musk, apparent flying car skeptic
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Quartz Obsession — Flying cars — Card 9
Between traditional aircraft, unruly drones, and flying car prototypes, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates all civil aviation in American airspace, has a lot on its hands lately. “The pace of technological advancement in this industry is faster than anything we’ve had to deal with,” Dan Elwell, then-acting administrator of the FAA, told Wired in 2018.
But the flying car industry is pushing for resolution on some of its biggest questions, including how it can access low-altitude airspace (pdf), what system should license and register these aircraft, and how the entire thing should be patrolled, hopefully without resorting to the flying cop cars in Blade Runner.
The FAA has yet to announce sweeping answers, though the agency said in January that six “urban air mobility” aircraft were “well along” in type certification, which establishes a machine is in compliance with things like emissions and noise standards. But flying car enthusiasts await each piece of news with bated breath, as the FAA’s position on flying cars could make or break the last decade of technological innovation.
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Quartz Obsession — Flying cars — Card 10
Before flying cars can take off, they’ll need places to land. Private developers and city officials will have to work together to build a network of vertical take-off and landing facilities, or vertiports. In large cities like New York, London, and Shanghai, commuters may need 85 to 100 landing pads, according to an August report from consulting firm McKinsey. At $50 per person per flight, McKinsey estimates they’ll need to accommodate a total of 2,200 trips per day just to break even.
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Quartz Obsession — Flying cars — Card 12
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