Flying cars are tricky puzzle for engineers


General Motors is looking into the development of flying cars, the automaker confirmed last week.

And you know what that means.

It means it’s a real topic that has moved from rumination to engineering problem-solving. History tells us that when GM directs its engineers and R&D teams onto a task, that task becomes a North American industry force.

But the first problem to be solved will be calling things by their correct names.

When we say “cars,” are we talking about a safe road vehicle that also can lift off the ground and fly safely? Or are we simply talking about, for lack of a better description, passenger drones that hover and move about like small helicopters, but don’t really cruise the highway?

The choice will shape the careers of the next generation of auto engineers.

As any engineer will explain, in order to get off the ground, a flying vehicle is designed to be light and buoyant, to be able to glide and float.

By contrast, a road vehicle is designed to not lift off the ground. Even as the industry toils to make them lighter, road vehicles are expected to have mass and stay firmly on the asphalt.

If one vehicle is going to be asked to do both things, it will be a product that fails at one or the other.

The next problem to be solved will not be one for design engineers, but for computer engineers. Unleashing drivers from the road, freeing them to zip around a thousand or more feet in the air, will require monitoring and control beyond our wildest 2020 supercomputing imagination.

Air-traffic controllers have their hands full just keeping airplanes safely apart overhead. Imagine adding a million buzzing bees to that oversight.

You’re going to need bigger computers.

Clearer definitions. More chips. Lots more engineers.

But the General asks that you please fasten your seat belts.

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