As a follow-up to my previous entry about flying cars, I'd like to take a little time to point out where, I believe, this technology has a future, and where it doesn't.
Flying Without a License
The first observation I'd like to make pertains to the popular concept of air travel for the masses. There seems to be a lot of hype about the idea of self-controlled aircraft that fly themselves from point A to point B using GPS or whatever, all without the aid of a qualified pilot. The tagline for this technology seems to be: "Getting a pilot's license is hard. Fly our plane and you won't need one."
Well, the concept looks good on paper... at lest to some. But imagine, for a moment, a freeway system where a good number of the cars don't have capable drivers behind the wheel. In fact, they don't even have driver seats, steering wheels, or brake pedals. See, technology is great, but technology can fail. When it works, there's nothing to worry about, but when it breaks, you want to have someone qualified to take over.
Getting a pilot's license takes a lot of training, but all but a few hours of it is dedicated to teaching you how to get out of situations that might otherwise get you dead. There's instruction about engine-loss, in-flight fires, severe weather, collision avoidance, and a good many other critical topics.
In fact, the pilots of the more advanced aircraft do the least work but have the most training. You'd be hard pressed to find a jet without an autopilot (and if you found one, you probably couldn't legally do much with it). They're not there to fly the plane. The plane flies itself. They're there to take control when things go wrong. And considering the sort of things some of these pilots have pulled off in an emergency, I'm glad that they're there. Truth is, flying will always require a license. Not only for the safety of the occupants of the craft, but for the rest of us on the ground, too.
Also, personal aircraft will never gain the same popularity as automobiles. Getting your pilot's license is quite a bit more difficult than a driver's license. While driving standards have been adjusted to place a driver's license well within the reach of even the least capable drivers in America, pilot standards are based on safety, not economics. And despite whatever propaganda you might have read, this isn't a step you'd be able to skip. (It's true that you don't need a license to fly an ultralight.... but you can't fly it around the city or at any significant altitude.)
Vehicles of the Future
The allure of a "flying car" is unparalleled convenience: door-to-door high-speed travel, never waiting at a security scan again, and best of all, no more traffic jams.
There are a couple of different details to consider when coming up with the flying car of the future. First of all, a vehicle that looks like a car does not fly very well. Sure, you can get it off the ground, but it wont be nearly as safe or efficient as it could otherwise be. Also, it's important that the vehicle be safe (with or without the engines). And while airframe parachutes are great, their track record is less than perfect; in other words, the craft better be able to glide safely to the ground should things go awful. The vehicle should be reasonably efficient: you shouldn't need 700hp worth of engine capacity to lift a two-passenger vehicle. Finally, it needs to be relatively simple. Every aircraft owner knows that the more parts you add, the more expensive the thing becomes to maintain--and that goes double for engines. Everything that flies needs to be maintained to a standard unheard of with road vehicles. The cost of doing so is directly proportional to the complexity of the craft.
Here are some of the points regarding existing designs that are commonly considered in this particular pursuit:
Aircraft with fixed wings (normal airplanes) are by far the fastest, but require a whole lot of ground space to take off and land. The whole concept of an airport is built around the need for a large area for planes to safely leave and return to earth.
All else being equal, airplanes are usually simpler craft that respond to mechanical failures fairly gracefully (i.e. safely).
Helicopters are quite the opposite of airplanes. They operate very well at low speed, takeoff and land vertically, and can never fly very fast. Helicopters are astoundingly complicated machines requiring extra vigilant care and maintenance. An engine loss in a helicopter doesn't necessarily lead to a crash, but it does require a direct return to earth following nearly the shortest possible path, which can be unnerving for all involved.
Autogyros, or gyroplanes (which, by the way, predate the helicopter by more than 10 years, not the other way around), are lifted by a rotor much like a helicopter, but use their forward motion to spin the rotor. This principle, called autorotation, is also what allows helicopters to safely land without an engine. Gyroplanes can't hover, but can take off and land in a very short distance--often within the length of the average driveway. "Jump" takeoffs (i.e. zero roll) are possible with many modern gyroplanes, but can be fairly tricky to execute.
The average autogyro is substantially more efficient than a helicopter, but not nearly as efficient as an airplane. The utility of this type of aircraft is severely limited; and it has therefore generally only been used by hobbyists and for special missions (like wildlife observation or cattle herding). When operated properly, an autogyro is exceptionally safe; however, it is subject to a number of pilot-induced situations that can be unrecoverable. Proper training is essential for safe operation, but because of the craft's simplicity, proper training is astoundingly rare. As such, the autogyro has often undeservedly gotten a bad reputation for safety.
Because autogyros don't require an airport to operate, and because they're much more simple and efficient than helicopters, this aircraft type is an ideal candidate for our flying car concept, provided the vehicle desired is for short trips where a 100 mph top speed is acceptable.
The world of autogyros stagnated for a good many years after helicopters became popular. Research and development has picked up in recent years, however, once it was realized that (a) helicopters will always be absurdly expensive, and (b) gyroplanes can do what we frequently use helicopters for. The world of personal point-to-point aviation (i.e. flying cars) is of particular interest to the autogyro community, as they see themselves as the best match for the purpose.
Since conventional airplanes are so fast, many attempts have been made to overcome their glaring weakness (the required takeoff and landing run). So far, all solutions, with one notable exception, have involved simply getting enough horsepower into the craft to drive it straight into the air. This method is effective, but immensely expensive.
The exception was to create an airplane-gyroplane hybrid. Such a craft uses a rotor for low-speed operations, but uses wings at high speed. There have been a number of craft in history to employ this technique. Most notably (and recently), the CarterCopter has been employing this tactic, while at the same time working to safely slow the rotor to reduce drag during high-speed flight. In general, a airplane-rotorcraft hybrid can't go as fast as a normal airplane. Jay Carter's company is working to change that.
There are two basic approaches to finding the "Flying Car" holy grail. The first is an attempt to create an aircraft that you can drive on the road. The other is an attempt to make an aircraft that will take you from doorstep to doorstep, so that you don't need a car.
Without going too deep into specific designs, I'll explain the basic methods people are using to try to reach these goals.
Automobile with Airplane Components
When you think of a "flying car," this is usually the image that comes to mind: an unassuming sort of automobile that allows for the attachment of specialized hardware to allow it to fly. Some of the earliest flying car designs followed this technique, it being one of the most intuitive solutions. The Aerocar (mentioned in Part 1) followed this design, as did the infamous getaway car in the James Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun. The Aerocar 2000 project seems to be an attempt at picking up where Molt Taylor left off--we'll see if that gets anywhere. It's also quite popular to make some attempt at integrating the wings and other flying matter into the car itself, so as to not have to leave your wings at home. Doing so is a bit of a challenge, so seeing different solutions is really quite intriguing. The automobile-airplane hybrid is so common a technique that no design really sticks out in the crowd. The size of the crowd, however, is a marvel in itself.
"Powered Lift" is the official FAA terminology for an aircraft that can "power" itself into the air by directing its thrust downward. Aircraft in this category include the tiltrotor V-22 Osprey and it's smaller cousin the Bell 609, along with V/STOL fighter jets like the Harrier and the Navy configuration of the Joint Strike Fighter.
Moller's Skycar is the only (as far as I know) flying car design in this category. It's lonely here for a reason: powered lift aircraft have unimaginably huge engine requirements, and therefore unrealistically expensive fuel consumption rates. Also, of all aircraft designed for slow flight, powered lift aircraft are by far and away the least stable and most dangerous (and difficult) to fly. Furthermore, any loss of power in "hover" configuration for any and all of these aircraft is immediately catastrophic, and very likely unrecoverable. 
 "Unrecoverable" is an aviation engineering euphemism for, "You get real dead real quick."
Gyroplane - Motorcycle
Probably the most promising design--that is, the simplest, safest, and cheapest--is to make a roadable gyroplane. Another way to look at it is to create a 3-wheel motorcycle with a rotor and a propeller. Of all the personal flying vehicles in the works, this one seems to be seeing the most progress. Here are a couple projects of note:
- Spark Design's PALV
This project is still in the design phase, but if the company's claims are to be trusted, they've already created solutions to a number of thorny problems: a folding propeller and rotor solve the "where do I put these things" problem for when in "road" mode. They've also patented some system of allowing the three-wheeled vehicle to tilt into a turn like a two-wheel vehicle would. As far as I know, however, they haven't produced a prototype, putting them quite solidly into last place in this race. The pictures sure look slick, though.
- Sean Cooper's street-legal gyroplane
Sean works in Silicon Valley, and commutes 50 miles to work every day. He managed to get his homebuilt gyroplane registered by both the FAA and, (after some persistence) the DMV. He has to take the rotor off to drive in traffic, and it currently only has one gear for road driving. But it's a start.
- Larry Neil's Sky Cycle
Larry works for Carter Aviation Technologies, the creators of the CarterCopter. Larry's also got his own company, which been working on a vehicle he calls the "Super Sky Cycle." In a nutshell, it's his Monarch gyroplane converted into a roadable vehicle. Thanks to Harley Davidson's incessant lobbying, it's trivially easy to register your own homebuilt motorcycle with the DMV; which, incidentally, is exactly what this "chopper" is classified as. This vehicle also has a folding rotor design for road use, and seems to be progressing quite quickly.
Airplane - Rotorcraft
This design attempts to take the best features of the Airplane world and tie them in to a rotorcraft (either Gyroplane or Helicopter). The most notable hybrid in history past was the Fairey Rotodyne: a remarkable 40-passenger craft with full hover capability but no tail rotor--instead it had tiny jet engines at the tips of each rotor blade. It had a top speed of about 190 mph; quite an achievement for its day.
In recent years, Carter and company has picked up the ball and created a hybrid gyroplane-airplane. Their purpose was to make such craft faster by slowing the rotor during cruise. Unfortunately, the CCTD craft crashed a few months back because of some lose bolts or something. While the pilots where fine, the craft was severely damaged. The company has decided, therefore, to focus their attention on the Monarch autogyro (the base design behind Larry Neil's Sky Cycle) because of funding reasons.
If Carter's experiment taught us anything, though, it's that the advantages of both rotorcraft and fixed-wing crafts can be effectively combined without serious side effects. You can take any of the previously-mention rotorcraft and add small wings to get better high-speed performance.
You might expect, assuming that we only use present-day technology, that the flying car of the future will be a roadable aircraft that uses a rotor to take off at low speeds, and a small set of wings for lift at high speed. You might also expect the "AutomoRotorPlane" to have collapsible telescoping wings and a folding propeller and rotor that store out-of-the-way for road use.
A 2 to 4 passenger model would probably do about 80 mph on the freeway, and about 220 mph in the air, all on an engine that burns about 10 gallons of normal automobile fuel per hour. It wouldn't look like a car, but you'd be the envy of all the neighbors as you back out of your driveway, pull onto the street as the main rotor slowly spins up, then gently lift off and turn toward downtown. You could smile to yourself as you zip 1000 feet above the Monday morning gridlock on your way to the office. A one-and-a-half-hour commute reduced to 8 minutes. Yeah, you can live with that.
Last week, I went to Boulder, CO, with my wife. Boulder has an airport. I have an airplane. I drove.
The flight time from Colorado Springs is about 30 minutes in my plane. The drive time is about 2 hours--more than that in heavy traffic: the quickest route takes you through downtown Denver. The chances of getting in an accident on the road are higher than we'd like to admit; the chances of getting in an accident in the plane are lower than most of us actually believe.
On the drive home, as traffic on the 10-lane highway ground to a halt (there was a Broncos game about to start), the following thought crept through my mind: I could have been home a half hour ago. And I've still got another hour and a half of driving ahead of me. Ugh.
So, why oh why did I take my car? The answer was simple: I needed a car when I got there. Sure, the plane would have gotten me to the airport with enviable speed. However, I wasn't going there to visit the airport, and the airport wouldn't have a car for me when I got there. Flying is great, but you have to leave your car at home.
Of course, the obvious solution is a flying car of one sort or another. This isn't a new concept--the first flying car was built by the Wright Brothers' contemporary Glenn Curtiss. His aircraft-automobile hybrid flew, but never really got off the ground. Other models that came later were a bit more successful: Molt Taylor's Aerocar even got FAA type certification; it was, and remains, the only flying automobile to achieve such recognition. Dozens of other "successful" flying car designs have been built, though few have achieved much recognition.
Of course, one of the major problems with these aerial automobile designs is performance and efficiency. My plane, a Mooney M20E, comes with a price tag in the mid $50k range, cruises at around 180mph, and get about 22 MPG. That's actually a very reasonable vehicle. It cuts a 2-day road trip down to about 4 hours (which, incidentally, is faster than even flying commercial when you factor in the airport time). The Aerocar does just over 100 mph--hardly a cross-country travel machine.
The quest continues, and new personal flying vehicles are being designed every day. Just for the fun of it, I'll go over a few of them for you:
This name always seems to come up first. Moller has been relentless in his PR campaign, and managed to continually convince investors that his design is only about 5 years away from public consumption. He's been saying that for much longer than 5 years now. He's built a prototype. It's shiny. It even hovers 50 feet of the ground, though never without being attached to a crane, just in case. As frequently cited an example as it is, it's highly, highly unlikely that he'll ever have a certified aircraft, and this design will simply never become mainstream.
Of all the flying car concepts, the CarterCopter is the most reasonable, viable, and well-developed of the lot. It also bears the least resemblance to a car. For reasons I'll explain in my next post, this is where I'd put my money.
Jay Carter's Carter Aviation Technologies is everything that Moller International isn't. Their prototype aircraft, the CarterCopter Technology Demonstrator has been flying bona fide test flights for 7 years while they tweak and improve the technology. It's not shiny, it's not red, and it's never been photographed in front of a giant American flag. Their design is, essentially, a helicopter with wings. Well, not a real helicopter, they went with a gyroplane because it's simpler, but the design will work just as well with a hover-capable helicopter.
Anyway, the idea is that a rotor is highly efficient during slow flight, while wings are great for fast flight. So they get their lift from the rotor when going slow, and from the wings at high speed. It's not a new concept, but these guys are using this prototype to create solutions for long-standing problems this design has faced. And they're doing a great job. It can take off and land vertically, but cruise at over 170 mph. The overall design allows for speeds well beyond the capability even the most powerful helicopters. It's also highly efficient and reasonably safe.
Jay Carter has no intention of selling or certifying an aircraft. Rather, he intends to develop, perfect, patent, then license the technology to interested parties. In the end, I'd expect the "flying car" of the future to be a vehicle like this--it flies from building top to building top like a helicopter, but costs a lot less and flies a lot faster.
Sokol A400 et. al.
There's a large number of individual designer-inventors who have come up with designs for either "flying cars" or "roadable aircraft," depending on your perspective. Few of these vehicles have been actually built, and some of them wouldn't even work. Others still sport truly innovative feasible concepts, like collapsible, telescoping wings, on the A400, or the compact, sleek simplicity of the PALV.
Dictatorships are bad. Capitalism is good. We learned all that back in 4th grade after reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag in the back of the schoolroom. God bless America, and pass me a sparkler.
The world is not so simple anymore.
The truth is, a dictatorship, if run correctly, has the power to beat the pants off a capitalist democracy in every arena. However, in past history, dictators always (overgeneralization, I know) acted in their own immediate self-interest at the expense, and eventual destruction, of the country they run.
Capitalism and democracy solve that problem--a capitalist society acts in its own financial self-interest, while a democratic society acts in its own social self interest, which luckily both actually serve the greater good. However, there's one serious caveat -- a rare condition that can destabilize these systems and make them behave like a poorly run dictatorship. The problem, as you know if you've studied economics, is any artificial centralization of power. For example, The Monopoly.
In a capitalist society, each individual entity acts in its own self-interest, attempting to strike some optimum balance where its own return on its investments is at a peak. As luck would have it, when each individual component is working at its peak performance, the economy as a whole is also at a peak. The market automagically adjusts to meet supply and demand changes, and competition drives the innovation required to find new ways of meeting demand while spending less. It's as though, as Adam Smith put it, an "Invisible Hand" is guiding the market to its optimal performance.
This all assumes, however, that the individual entities always act in their own self-interest, and without interfering with the actions of others. Adding a monopoly to the mix changes all that. If one single player can directly manipulate supply or demand (like a monopoly can), he can force other entities to act in his self-interest, rather than their own. This creates a sub-optimal situation that may not always be obvious.
For example, our most recent American monopoly, Microsoft, has been using is position to control the market to a degree not generally within the bounds of a capitalist environment. For example, nearly all computers sold in this country come with Microsoft's software pre-installed. You pay for it, of course. Usually, Windows accounts for $60 to $200 of your computer's purchase price. And at current prices, that could account for a third of the computer's cost. There are alternatives, of course. Linux, for example, can be had for as low a price as free, and its main hindrance to widespread adoption is its lack of popularity. In fact, nearly every piece of software you've ever used has a free alternative that closely rivals (or even exceeds) its commercial counterparts in quality.
Microsoft, however, using its monopolistic influence often takes the choice out of your hands. That copy of Windows running on your computer--how much did you pay for it? You don't know? Free? No, it wasn't free. But you didn't see the price tag, either. Microsoft struck a deal with the maker of your computer (Dell, IBM, Sony, etc.) allowing them to sell your copy of Windows closer to the $60 range instead of the standard $200 price in exchange for an agreement which forces that manufacturer to sell a copy of Windows with every computer they sell--effectively taking that purchasing decision out of your hands. A single company has been allowed to directly manipulate both supply and demand on a few different fronts, resulting in a broken market. Adam Smith sighs resignedly in his grave.
Well, fool me once... and I'm not going to get fooled again: Such acts by monopolies are now illegal in this country. Microsoft went to trial for this very thing, and interestingly enough, the very companies they were influencing, the hardware manufacturers, actually came out in the company's defense. As history later showed, this hold--the preinstalled software pricing deal--which allowed Microsoft to dictate what the manufacturer would sell, was also used to force these manufacturers to testify in court in Microsoft's defense--falsely if necessary.
These events lead us to the other half of our discussion, the social effects. In a democracy, each citizen is a well-informed active participant in all matters of governance. He votes in his own self-interest, and the society as a whole progresses in what could be considered an ideal situation.
We don't live in a democracy.
No one does. To use a computing term, democracy doesn't "scale". The more members you add, the less effective the system becomes. A system where half a billion citizens spend a good part of their day discussing legal issues and voting on bills would collapse under its own weight. The real truth behind issues presented would rarely be understood, the only decisions that actually get made would have to be pushed through by a "man on a white horse" who mobilizes the masses based on his own propaganda. Democracies of any real size don't work--it's just not an option.
We, along with our "democratic" neighbors, live in a Representative Republic. We elect representatives whom vote on our behalf. Your opinion on real-life issues only matters to the extent that it affects whom you vote for. Beyond that, your own views are quite irrelevant to the direction our society takes.
Real governing power is concentrated in the few elected officials who actually direct public policy. If an organization can convince enough elected officials that it's in their best interest to act in the interest of the organization, then they've effectively wrested control of the government out of the people's hands. If the issues in question are minor (or difficult-to-understand) enough as to not attract too much public attention, any policy decision can be effectively influenced by those with enough political clout. This is, of course, the "Iron Triangle" you heard about when studying government. Bureaucrats, politicians, and special interests run the country. You just think you do.
Companies like Microsoft can then effectively use the legal and legislative system to avoid any social repercussions to their tampering with the economic side of things. You're the one who gets hurt, but you didn't get to vote on that decision.
Enter China, Stage Left
This is where the dictatorship comes into play. China still wants to take over the world. Recent history has shown, however, that the most effective way to do so is through economic strategies, not through military conquest.
The societies in Eastern Civilization tend treat authority with a higher degree of importance than their Western counterparts, which leads to a more stable social situation. The success of an Eastern empire is measured in millennia--years are just milestones. It's not uncommon for an Eastern company to have a 10-year, 50-year, or even 100-year plan on the books.
The current Chinese government is no different. World domination is what they're after, and they're willing to wait if that's what it takes. The government is free to make whatever decisions are required to make that happen without having deal with the requests of special interests.
For example, China is one of the world's leading consumers of Nuclear Energy research, promising the largest deployment of pebble bed reactors in the world in a time when building nuclear reactors is taboo among countries with an active environmentalist contingent. The fact is, China needs electricity. These reactors are cheap, absolutely safe, low-maintenance, and more environmentally friendly than their conventional counterparts.
The Global Market
One point that makes the current situation different than that of centuries past is an awareness of the global scale of our opportunities. China had found, for example, that it could artificially tie their own currency to the American dollar, thereby assuring that labor and materials in China were always the cheapest no matter what happened to exchange rates--thus guaranteeing the availability of an export market. Export markets are, in fact, the mainstay of Chinese technology production, where supply far outstrips internal demand. And Chinese companies are always looking for ways to better compete on cost; an area where China excels in comparison to other countries where workers' unions are all too willing to trade a job's viability for short-term benefits.
The Future of Technology
And that brings us back to our discussion on software pricing. China has the resources and the motivation to produce computers and computer parts at costs below the global average, and its capability is increasing as time goes by. The Chinese government has already publicly eschewed Microsoft and everything they stand for. China has even gone as far as to create its own Linux distribution: Red Flag Linux. This platform has already been adopted by all levels of Chinese operations, from government offices to insurance companies to news media. In China, Microsoft has much less clout.
It's only a matter of time before Eastern companies start selling large quantities of very-low-cost computer systems to Western consumers. It's all part of the game plan. The software is free; the hardware is cheap. Here in the West, a small handful of very powerful companies is manipulating the market to their own advantage. The expense we pay is overpriced goods, stifled innovation, and the loss of market dominance.
The situation won't last forever, of course. The market will recover. The monopolies will be rendered ineffective, and supply will once again balance out with demand. The bad news is that the American economy will no longer have a commanding role in global commerce.
Sooner or later, we'll all have to learn to speak Chinese.
I was reading a newspaper article off some Arab site, when I came across this ad. This is a real adversitement. It's not at all photoshopped. Looks like you really can find anything online.