So how do we feel about flying cars?

A new survey shows that we definitely agree about the parachutes.

Ah, flying cars. For people of … a certain age, they are redolent with symbolism. In the 1950s and ’60s, they represented the promise of a high-tech future, the inevitable outcome of relentless American ingenuity. (See: the Jetsons.) For the generations that came after, they grew to represent something else — the failure of that future to manifest. It became a common, plaintive lament: “Where is my flying car?”

Well, guess what? Thanks to advances in battery energy density, materials science, and computer simulation, it looks like the wait may be over. It may have taken longer than we expected, but your flying car is here.

Well, okay, maybe not your flying car. But absurdly rich people? Their flying cars are here.

Today, at the Top Marques Monaco “supercar show,” a company called AeroMobil will launch its first market-ready flying car, the AeroMobil 3.0.

A company called Terrafugia is already taking reservations for a flying car they call The Transition.

The Pal-V Liberty is also taking reservations — for now only the Pioneer Edition is available, starting at $600,000, but once production ramps up, they will offer a version called the Sport, starting at only $400,000 (y’know, for ordinary folk). Pal-V says the Liberty will be “the very first certified commercial flying car ever delivered.”

In case you wonder how these things are being marketed, or who they’re being marketed to, get a load of this delightful image from the Pal-V site:

for the sophisticated rich white dude (Pal-V)
Get one for your giant mansion driveway!

These examples are only the front edge of a wave. Google co-founder Larry Page has launched a secretive company called Zee Aero which is reportedly working on a range of personal flying vehicles, including electric gliders, fixed-wing craft, and rotorcrafts, possibly including a giant quadcopter drone. Aviation giant Airbus is launching a range of initiatives meant to develop an autonomous flying car and the navigation and planning systems to allow them to work in cities.

Point is, multi-modal autonomous personal flying vehicles are about to become a Thing.

Which raises the question: How do we really feel about them?

A new survey probes public opinion on flying cars

Funny you should ask. Just yesterday, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) released a new survey on this very topic. (It was an online survey, with more than 500 demographically representative respondents.)

“A Survey of Public Opinion About Flying Cars” asks about a variety of things, some of which, I confess, never would have occurred to me. Among the topics: “likely benefits, major concerns, preferred source of energy, desirable minimum range, amount of flight-training required, takeoff and landing requirements, seating capacity, affordability, and overall interest in operating or using such vehicles.”

Perhaps the strangest finding is that only 65 percent of respondents are “familiar with the concept” of flying cars. My question is, once you hear the term “flying car,” what exactly remains mysterious about the concept? Seems like it’s all right there in the name.

flying car! (Pal-V)
“When the PAL-V Liberty is in flying mode,” the company notes, “it must comply with the regulations for an airplane, and airplanes are simply not allowed to take off from a highway or a street.”

As to the most likely benefit, the overwhelming pick was “shorter travel time,” with 75 percent (the next highest was “fewer crashes” at 10 percent). This also makes me wonder what people are thinking. The fundamental rule of traffic is that, as long as using roads is free, the number of cars will expand to fill the available roadways. Why wouldn’t the same hold true of airways? Why wouldn’t the advent of flying cars just recreate congestion in three dimensions?

As for safety concerns about flying cars, this is like a sociological study in miniature here:

flying car safety concerns (UMTRI)

Women are more concerned about safety than men; safety concerns increase with age. I suspect you’d get roughly the same result if you asked, “how concerned are you about the safety of [literally anything]?”

For my part, I’m with Elon Musk, a flying-car skeptic: “If somebody doesn’t maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you. Your anxiety level will not decrease as a result of things that weigh a lot buzzing around your head.”

Majorities of respondents were also concerned about the performance of flying cars in congested airspace, in poor weather, and at night. And why wouldn’t they be? They’ve never seen one work.

“But what about parachutes?” you’re asking. Yes, UMTRI asked about that. Fully 79.5 percent of people think that having a parachute on a flying car is “very important” or “extremely important.” I’m inclined to agree — indeed, I have trouble even imagining the counter-argument — but from what I’ve seen, none of the flying cars coming to market include them.

Interesting side note: Did you know that lots of small Cirrus airplanes now have whole-aircraft parachutes? These are giant chutes that the pilot can deploy to allow the entire plane to drift to the ground safely in the event of malfunction or loss of control. They’ve saved hundreds of lives. (Journalist James Fallows, a devoted pilot himself, had a great post about one of them.) Now they’re being considered for larger aircraft too.

To my immense personal satisfaction, most people (60 percent) prefer that flying cars run on electricity. (Putting internal combustion engines just over people’s heads seems like a horrible idea along multiple dimensions.) Notably, support for electricity is highest among the youngest respondents. Five percent voted for “solar,” which, for reasons Brad Plumer has explained, is likely forlorn.

Most people think between $100,000 and $200,000 is a reasonable price for a flying car. They want their flying cars to have 400-mile range. They prefer vertical take-off and landing to a runway or landing strip by five to one.

Finally, people generally prefer that both personally owned and shared (“taxi-like”) flying cars be fully autonomous, i.e., self-driving and -flying. Intriguingly, support for full automation goes up with age and is highest among those 60+.

So there you have it. All these years after the Jetsons went off the air, we’re right on the verge of having access to robots that drive and fly us around while we sit and play Scrabble on our phones. And as long as they have parachutes, we seem fine with it.

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