Kind of cool but mostly terrifying

Terrafugia_tra

Sure, flying cars sound like a great idea, but when you add in certain human and mechanical factors, what you get is a flying lawsuit generator that will probably end the “light sport” category of general aviation completely by bankrupting the manufacturers.

The important thing to remember with these vehicles is that they aren’t so much a flying car as an aircraft that’s been deemed safe to drive.  That’s a big difference.

Aircraft require much more diligence in maintenance and operation than your average car.  A good pilot has a litany of preflight procedures to take care of before setting out anywhere, not to mention in-flight procedures once underway.  Considerations that will rarely if ever enter the head of the average terrestrial driver:

  • Aircraft Maintenance Logs.  When was the aircraft last serviced, what equipment is operative/inoperative?  What INOP equipment can be placarded or waived, and keep the aircraft legally safe to fly?  Also, legally safe doesn’t mean actually safe.  A pilot unfamiliar with (or uneasy about) flying with certain INOP equipment can still, despite their best efforts, find themselves at the scene of a crash.  Aircraft are also much less tolerant of damage.  A small malfunction with a plane’s control surface can be deadly, whereas losing your car’s power steering is generally not.  If you push the plane beyond the limits of airframe strength (not overly hard to do) you can actually cause structural failure, a condition that will likely be fatal.  Fatal structural failure in cars is generally caused by crashing into things, as opposed to manoeuvring the vehicle too aggressively.
  • Weather.  A good pilot looks at the forecast weather and local warm/cold fronts, and decides what his best timing and routing is—or even to turn around and go home without ever going out to the aircraft.  The heavy convective wind flows in your average run-of-the-mill thunderstorm can very easily be fatal to a small, light aircraft, whereas it will generally takes enormous hail or a tornado to really wreck a car and the person inside.  Rime icing can also be fatal quite quickly to small aircraft, whereas people drive around with a foot of ice and snow on their cars all the time.  And let’s not even think about the deadly stuff you can’t see—clear air turbulence.
  • Preflight checks.  Includes basic stuff like the walk-around (visual and mechanical inspection), fuel/oil levels, gauge and avionics function, condition and movement of flight control surfaces, etc.  This is an easy way to prevent the most basic malfunctions or unsafe conditions, and it’s also something routinely ignored by terrestrial drivers.  Cars can generally suffer a component failure in a non-catastrophic way, because they won’t fall a few thousand feet at a hundred plus miles an hour if something goes wrong.
  • A terrific understanding of the performance envelope of your aircraft.  I think most drivers have a handle on how fast the car goes, how well it can accelerate or brake, and so on.  The better drivers will know how it performs under a variety of conditions—engine performance in summer vs. winter, braking distance, turning radius on dry/wet/icy roads, etc.  Most drivers will know this data intuitively as visual markers in their head, as opposed to a number figure on a performance table or matrix.  To be able to fly well you need both.  When you’re landing on a contaminated runway with a heavy crosswind, you need to be able to determine what the crosswind component is and how big a runway you’ll need to land.  You will also need to know how to determine if you’ve passed the point where a safe landing is no longer possible, and need to struggle back into the air.  You will need to know how to manage your fuel-air mixture in various stages of flight and at various altitudes for optimum performance and to avoid prematurely aging the engine.  Most consumer cars do not permit their drivers to do something basic like adjust the fuel/air mixture of their engine.
  • Professionalism.  Getting into a scrap on the radio with ATC or other aircraft is not going to help you get where you need to go.  Getting mad about it isn’t going to help either.  Contrast this with the average driver’s unteachable attitude that 1) believes everyone else is the problem; 2) isn’t self-aware enough to realise that sometimes, they are the problem and not the other guy; and 3) cannot retain enough self-control to avoid making smartass remarks or flipping the bird to their fellow drivers.  Having that kind of attitude in the cockpit gets you killed—and soon—because inevitably you will screw up, someone will try to correct the flaw in your flying, but you will be too much of a jackass to accept it.

The biggest problem, though, is that people will get complacent.  They will treat it more like a fault-tolerant car-that-flies than a fault-intolerant aircraft-that-drives.  Its familiar form and the lure of the unknown will also tempt the profoundly stupid (and daredevil young) to steal it and try their hand at flying.  These two factors alone will generate an enormous number of lawsuits from the moronic.  Aircraft/powerplant manufacturers (and operators) are already subject to lawsuits from aircrews (or families of deceased aircrews) who exceeded or ignored the aircraft’s clearly-specified operating parameters.  They are being forced to make engine design changes in order to account for the fact that some highly-trained pilots can also be idiots and unnecessarily, dangerously operate the equipment outside of its design envelope.

The manufacturers of flying cars will, no doubt, become subject to lawsuits from morons (or relatives of morons) who stole an aircraft they did not know how to operate.  And the judges of the world, instead of exercising the common sense God gave cabbage, will award damages.  This will create pressure to introduce all kinds of ridiculous and expensive mechanical fixes or safeguards to prevent the condition known as “stupid user”.  Which will drive up the weight and complexity of the aircraft, increase the regulatory drag, and make selling these things less lucrative and therefore less desirable.

So no, I don’t have a lot of faith that the “flying car” will be such a great boon.  The best we can hope for is that the people who buy these things take their pilotage seriously, and the inevitable fatal stupidity of a few (especially fatally stupid criminals) doesn’t ruin the concept for everyone.

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