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Robocar Blog

Robocars and flying cars

Robocars and flying cars

Sometimes when I talk about Robocars, people bring up the concept of "flying cars" in a number of different ways.

Some worry that, just as flying cars were one of those "any day now" concepts of the future that were promised and never delivered upon, Robocars may suffer the same fate. And that's certainly possible, though the problems to be solved are of quite different classes.

Others bring it up with hope, they want very much to see transportation move into the future. For all we have build technologically, our transporation technology is still quite old. For most people the basics have not changed in their lifetimes. Cars and planes are fancier, and more comfortable, and easier to navigate but they are about the same speed and still the same inside.

A few ask, "When can I get my flying cars?"

Well, it turns out robocars may be able to solve one of the problems that has kept flying cars on the ground. There are many such problems of course, but one is an inability to develop a good compromise between the car and the plane. The planes we have a lot of experience at building use big wide wings. To go on streets, those wings must be removed or bent out of the way. That's a tall order, and takes time, and cost to do it. Some have tried to build a plane that can take short trips on roads. Others a car that can do occasional hops in the air.

The robocar answer is not to compromise, because there is less need to do the trip in the same vehicle. It is simpler to have an on-demand robotaxi take you right onto the tarmac of the nearest airstrip, to step into your plane. When you land, a robocar can be waiting at the end of your taxiway to finish the road part of your journey.

Now this is all possible without a plane that flies itself. But in fact, we're actually much further along, in many ways, at planes that fly themselves than we are at cars. Planes have flown on autopilot for decades, and been taken off and landed by computer for decades as well. These systems will just get cheaper and cheaper, and eventually we'll see better computerized air traffic control. NASA's "highway in the sky" project is making slow progress towards this.

But even a plane that doesn't fly itself, but can taxi itself and do more of the pre-flight and post-flight checklist on its own can make this transition smoother and faster.

Now the dream of the flying car has tended to be more helicopter-like, ie. the car takes off right from your house. Robocars can't help with that part. But the advanced speed of fixed-wing aircraft makes them a better choice for trips of any serious distance when it comes to time. This would be particularly true if the world moved to having many more small airstrips dotted around communities. The non-stop trips of robocars would make the journey to one much faster, to generate the overall low trip time people seek from a flying car.