Flying cars are no longer just stars of science fiction. Movies, “Back to the Future” and “Bladerunner” both featured flying cars as normal means of transportation. The most famous of all though was regularly seen in the Jetsons cartoon TV  show, where each episode opened with father George Jetson landing his rover on the family’s personal carpad.

Besides the space and personnel issues of running each carfield, there is also the problem of air traffic control

The flying car that is currently under development may not look like the flying cars of movies. One thing is certain though: judging by the current pace of development, flying vehicles are coming sooner than expected. They are also bringing a whole new set of logistical and infrastructure issues no one has addressed publicly.

The flying “vehicles” that can handle passengers that are closest to production stage today are all based on a the helicopter as a model. Their developers are pursuing an electric motor, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) model. As the name suggests, these vehicles wouldn’t need a runway, but they also couldn’t navigate a street, so they will never be considered flying cars.

The true flying cars under development will need a runway. Not all of them are meant to take off like an airplane, there are a few that turn to gyrocopters. However, even gyrocopters need enough space to roll into flight.

Driveways to Runways

Picture the mechanics involved in a takeoff and landing. A regular car drives to the runway, transforms into a plane, and then takes off like a plane. When landing, the vehicle has to land on a runway suitable for a plane (of sufficient length and width), where it would roll to a landing, transform and then be driven off like a regular ground vehicle on wheels.

Runways could be privately owned but they would be expensive. Most people would have to make do with a public runway. That means there would need to be a traffic control system of some type (human or machine) and rules to govern its operation.

Besides the space and personnel issues of running each carfield, there is also the problem of air traffic control. Current air traffic controllers are already overworked with the volume of regular air traffic. They cannot take the additional burden of watching over flying cars.

Once in the air, where will these vehicles fly? There are commercial “lanes” of traffic that pilots use to safely keep their large and easily seen vehicles from collisions. Thankfully, by the time flying car technology has evolved enough to get the vehicle airborne, the artificial intelligence units inside them should be advanced enough to handle piloting in whatever invisible lane at whatever invisible altitude is assigned to cars.

prototype flying car driving on road
A prototype flying Car called the Terrafugia is out for a test drive

But who and how will we regulate the rogues who decide that being on time for their 9am meeting is more important than you being on time for yours? We’ve talked before about building a “Rules of the Sky” for drones, but now we’re adding a human to the equation. Will we require human drivers to pass flight school and maintain a certain minimum flight time the same as we do for pilots?

Possible Problems on Noise Pollution

Another big concern of any vehicle flying low over residential areas is the noise. Battery operation is nearly silent, so engine noise is not likely to be high, but these vehicles will generate noise with their propellers, potentially a lot of noise.

Even if they are regulated to the same standards as light airplanes, they will be landing in non-traditional areas (neighborhoods) that are not apt to be tolerant of aircraft “existing allowable noise levels.” Judging by the amount of dissension over current helicopter noise levels in some major cities, there will undoubtedly be public outcry for lower noise levels through regulation or other pressure on flying car developers.

There are at least five different companies worldwide working on flying cars (not VTOLs). At least four of them already have prototypes. One company assures flying cars buyers that they do not need a license to fly because their vehicle is designated as a light plane due to the use of a parachute for a wing. Another says you can be licensed as a Sport Pilot to drive and fly their model in just 20 hours.

Today, the flying car is stuck somewhere between being a bold idea and a bold action. It is no longer a question of if, but when will these vehicles take to the road and the air. When they do, there will be a lot of them vying for space and attention at the same time. That means we have very little runway left for asking, and answering, down-to-earth questions like the ones above.

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