I Thought There Would Be Flying Cars By Now?

Thanks in large part to the "Jetsons" cartoon -- hello, flying cars were everywhere -- 435 examines the future of your commute.

flying cars in kansas city


It’s a fantasy every commuter shares: you’re stuck in traffic, with delays and detours chewing on your already threadbare nerves, it feels like there’s no escape, but you have a flying car – with the push of a button you hover away, soaring above the gridlock.

   Since self-driving vehicles are seemingly imminent and electric cars are taking to the streets in ever greater numbers, one could be forgiven for thinking this ultimate advancement in personal mobility is only a few exits away.

   It isn’t.

   While the other two innovations were achieved by addressing solvable problems like batteries, sensors and infrastructure, flying cars have been held up by simple physics. Aircraft have to be light-weight, cars don’t. One of the most well-appointed light planes you can buy, a Cirrus SR-22, with four leather seats, a glass cockpit, autopilot and even air conditioning, weighs about 2,300 pounds. That is equal to the weight of a Mazda Miata, with a manual transmission and cloth roof – a far cry from what most Americans drive every day. For instance, the Honda CR-V, America’s best-selling crossover, weighs nearly 3,500 pounds. Making a plane with all the features of a modern car light enough to fly is clearly possible, but it doesn’t come cheap. The SR-22 takes flight at around $750,000.

   As carbon composites and other new-age materials get more economical, it will become somewhat less expensive to make aircraft and cars lighter. However, unlike planes, cars are required to have considerable heft, in the form of bumpers, rollover-proof pillars, and other safety gear like airbags. Planes are built without these safety requirements since there are virtually no impact-protection devices that will save you when you hit the ground at 200+ mph. One could make a flying car without mandatory safety features – people have, but it wouldn’t be road legal.

   Training is another challenge. Driving doesn’t prepare you for safely ascending and descending, operating in three dimensions instead of two. Further, the FAA jealously guards the airspace around major airports, which tend to overlap with the core of most major cities. Kansas City commuters would have to be routed around and among jets headed to KCI and Wheeler Downtown. Traffic jams in the sky may seem unlikely but ask any air traveler who has faced a holding pattern and you’ll know they do occur and can be a nightmare.

   So, if flying cars aren’t the future of transport, what is?

   Autonomous or self-driving cars are the most common answer. Most major car companies tout that they’ll have a self-driving car available in just two years. In another 20 years, automotive forecasters predict that 95 percent of new vehicles sold will be fully autonomous.

   But before the streets become a mecca of driverless cars, a lot needs to happen. The Department of Transportation says right now our roads aren’t ready for them. Research done suggests that preparing our nation’s infrastructure to handle self-driving cars successfully will be of the same magnitude as when cars replaced horse and carriages. Currently, neither Kansas nor Missouri has enacted any legislation related to autonomous vehicles.

   Larry Carl, chief executive officer, of the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Kansas City, bluntly shares that the metro isn’t anywhere close to being equipped for self-driving cars.

   “For the most optimal and efficient use of the self-driving technology, the city’s infrastructure must be equally as smart. Kansas City isn’t on the front edge of that and any dates that say autonomous vehicles will be taking over the roads in the next decade aren’t even close to being realistic.”

   Another hurdle autonomous cars will face is what’s being called the “bully challenge.” Since the cars will always be programmed to obey traffic laws and avoid accidents, there are fears that other drivers will “bully” autonomous vehicles, taking advantage of their deference to relegate them to the slowest lanes or run them off the shoulder. Traffic planners are already proposing combined bus and self-driving car lanes to avoid this but adding such lanes on most major roads will require a significant monetary commitment on the federal and state level.

   And none of this matters if you can’t afford one. Carl says the average car today costs $35,000. The going price for a self-driving car is $100,000.

   “I predict a pretty slow adoption for self-driving cars due to the economic factor. The price is going to take a lot of people out of the autonomous car market.”

   The Department of Transportation seems to be on team self-driving car due mainly to the lives that could be saved. More than three thousand people die every day from injuries sustained in a car crash and 94 percent of those car accidents are tied to human error. A Federal Automated Vehicles Study says autonomous vehicles can “address and mitigate the overwhelming majority of crashes. Whether through technology that corrects for human mistakes, or through technology that takes over the full driving responsibility.”

   Bill Kennedy, a metro driver’s education instructor for half a century agrees that autonomous cars could make the roads safer, but he’s not sold on ever owning one.

   “Self-driving vehicles may be an answer to part of our problems but driving and being able to control your car is often one of the few activities a person still has control over. To give this up maybe too much to sacrifice.”