My eldest son has been obsessed with a Coilbook TV show episode involving a police chase across different timelines. Aside from the fact a 3-year-old is already curious about time travel, the section that takes place 100 years from now has flying cars as primary transportation. I don’t think it will happen.
I’m not talking about the plausibility of flying cars, though, because they already exist.
What I want to talk about is why better options exist.
Six Sigma: Waiting
I’m a Six Sigma black belt and one of the core components we learn about is DOWNTIME, the 8 wastes in a process. I won’t go into depth about this, but in process design, you want as little time as possible for it to wait.
Many of us in the United States own a car. How much time is a car actually driven? I can peak into a typical week and assume with a 10% variation that it’s accurate across a year, on average taking into account days off, weekends, holidays, and travel.
- Travel to/from work plus Daycare for my kids is about 1 hour per day
- Grocery store visits is 30 minutes per day at 2x a week
- Travel to/from parks for getting outside is ~1.5 hours per day
Using the knowledge above – pre-Covid – we can assume the car is physically in use 9 hours a week, but I’ll round up to 10. There are 168 hours in a week, so 158 of 168 hours my car is waiting on me. That’s 94% of the time. The car is essentially a massive DOWNTIME waste. My car loan is about $470/month (no interest), so I’m essentially paying $47/hour to use my car. Most Americans don’t even get paid that much.
A lot of land is dedicated to parking, and how much of it used how frequently? According to one study that was focusing on a recommendation of parking spaces required for businesses and residential homes, it either rarely or never saw all spaces utilized. Even at peak parking usage, in Dallas, they found 30,000 unused spaces. In Six Sigma concepts, I would put this in the “Inventory” category where there are more spaces than ever needed.
The environmental impact is not positive either. In another study in Tippercanoe County, Indiana, they discovered 1,397 acres were designated for parking or about 2.2 parking spaces per registered vehicle. This was about a 6.57% total urban footprint in this county. I don’t imagine flying cars will fix this either because they have to rest somewhere.
We already struggle with traffic on the ground. Generally, many studies have shown that expanding highways doesn’t reduce traffic, and instead encourages it. As lanes expand, more people utilize those lanes. More people use the lanes than the traffic they support. The highway – and streets in general – exist to guide drivers to predesignated locations.
With flying vehicles, though, we’d have to support some kind of structure to guide drivers to predesignated locations. How? We obviously don’t want people driving any direction they choose at any altitude they choose. Airlines have strict predesignated routes that separate planes to avoid any collisions, but how does that work with millions of drivers in a small area at a point in time?
Perhaps we could utilize lasers to define lanes at different altitudes. But, what if someone leaves those lines? I could certainly just turn off the lane because I want to avoid traffic, just like people do with medians on roads. However, those spaces are limited and often have barriers to prevent people from taking full advantage of them. And, when do we allow them to leave those predesignated lanes to get to their destination? What if they have to go down three levels to their destination? I’m sure some people will come up with answers to these questions, but it doesn’t seem practical to me.
Flying Cars and Challenges
Now that we’ve established a few challenges that won’t be solved by flying cars, I’ll dive into the challenges of how practical flying cars are. This study from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology dives into more details than I could ever imagine, but I’ll highlight the problems:
- Passenger protection
- Weather conditions
- Collision/obstacle avoidance
- Noise pollution
- Manufacturing costs
- Pilot training
- Ecosystem impacts
- Human privacy
- Environmental pollution
It’s not looking good. However, I do think it is absolutely practical that we could see emergency services in flying cars, especially ambulatory services.
While mass transit is more popular in European and Asian countries, it is unpopular in American cities due to the above points. Let alone a failing infrastructure for trains, most Americans prefer to have their own individual vehicle. According to one study in Shanghai, China, the following factors impacted whether a person used mass transit or not:
- Proximity to metro station
- Incoming, job status, and transportation subsidy
- Higher population density in work location
- Commute distance
While, yes, this may be a study focused in China, people have the same needs there as in the United States when it comes to transportation between work and home. Anecdotally, I would agree with these factors in why I choose not to use mass transit. The nearest rail station is 15 minutes by car, or 20 minutes by bus, followed by the nearest station to my office adds another 15 minutes walking. Alternatively, I could drive to work in 20 minutes. Ignore the fact that the bus comes near my home once an hour, mass transit is not beneficial. It certainly doesn’t help many Americans live in suburbs and not high-density residential areas.
Car Automation (AI)
Car automation has a place in the future where people are not driving behind the wheel. It performs better than many people when it comes to safety. The amount of crashes caused by an automated car is, quite honestly, negligible. I’ve been unable to verify any crashes actually caused by an automated car. There have been several cases where an automated car was involved in a crash, but it was caused by either:
- Someone disabling or manually overriding automation
- Another car’s fault
That’s not to say they’re perfect, but cars driving for people is better. However, that doesn’t solve the problem of car ownership and the waste of it sitting in a garage.
The idea of carsharing is simple because you don’t own the car. Rather, you pay for how much of the car you use. To elaborate further, I’ll provide a scenario:
- I need a car to get to work at 8am
- I find a car near me I can use
- I pay $10/hr to use the car for transportation to work (according to Zipcar)
- I drive the car to work
- I leave the car
- Someone else can use the car
The process repeats going home. According to one study on the environmental impact on greenhouse gases (GHG) for individuals that did not, the mean observed impact is -0.58 t GHG/year per household, whereas the mean full impact is -0.84 t GHG/year per household. Both means are statistically significant.
There’s also Taxis, Uber, and Lyft where you can share a car with someone for a specified dollar amount based on distance. Either way, this seems cheaper than car ownership per hour in general. But, that doesn’t eliminate car ownership because that car has to sit somewhere.
Carsharing + Car Automation
This brings me to car automation with carsharing, like what Waymo and Uber are working on.
The idea is that cars become available when you need them, and they drive you to where you need to go without any driver. I think this is the most likely and most plausible solution, especially since most of them are using low emission or zero-emission vehicles.
However, the biggest downfall I do not know what the solution to is how we handle families? Moving an infant or toddler car seat in and out can be very troublesome and time-consuming. Will those vehicles provide car seats? If not, how do families handle those? Will car seats no longer be required if all vehicles are automated?
Obviously, this will evolve over time, but how do we handle situations where the car gets stuck in a loop? Have you ever asked for directions somewhere, but when you got near that destination it kept asking you to turn around? Hopefully, there’s an emergent stop option.