Flying cars are coming to LA, but this futuristic vision may not solve today’s traffic congestion

Did you know The Future may be only a few short years away? Did you know that you might soon see actual flying cars in the skies over Los Angeles? And that the city has a goal to have tens of thousands of them zipping around?

In December, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office announced the creation of an Urban Air Mobility Partnership, a new public-private merger with Hyundai to get “low-noise, electric aircraft flying in our local airspace by 2023.” The partnership says it will be working through safety and infrastructure issues, including figuring out the logistics for a “vertiport” where these things can take off and land. 

A dreamy Hyundai promo features near-future travel in LA and San Francisco, with special attention to how bad car traffic is … and how you can rise above it. Video by CES 2020 Hyundai/YouTube. 

Garcetti is very bullish on flying cars, though it’s not clear whether the city’s dedication to urban air mobility (UAM) will change when and if he decamps to India

In late April, Garcetti spoke at a House Subcommittee hearing on aerospace innovation, where he made the sales pitch for LA as a leader in  advanced aerial mobility (AAM). It’s been a hub for the aerospace industry for more than half a century, so flying cars extend that destiny.

“For this technology, the sky is literally the limit. And it has the potential to reduce emissions, to connect communities, and to grow our economies,” he said. “We need to make sure that AAM doesn’t create flyover highways accessible only to those with the economic means … without creating more sprawl. We know that well in Los Angeles, where traffic is among the worst in our country, and our air quality has been too, even though we’ve made huge strides.”

This futurist optimism is not held by everyone.

“We have this technical term in transportation that I'm going to use. So if you need a definition, just let me know it: This sounds to me like bullshit.”

That’s UCLA urban planning professor Michael Manville gently pointing out that the transportation industry is full of promises and timelines — self-       driving cars, electric vehicles, high-speed rail.

“It's just the beauty of technology that doesn't exist yet. … You can say anything about it, right? It's, ‘Oh, yeah, it's gonna be affordable, and we're gonna have this many vehicles in seven years,’” he said. “Give me a break. … It just doesn't work that way.”

Will flying cars arrive on time? Will they deliver the clean, equitable future we’ve been promised by sci-fi? Or is it all just the 20th century transportation mistakes all over again, but just a little higher up?

Busy skies ahead

You might be surprised to know just how big this industry is. 

There are dozens of companies around the world trying to break into this space with their own version of the flying car. Some look like big quadcopter drones, some look like Cessnas with a bunch of extra propellers. There are “electric take-off-and-landing” (e-VTOL) vehicles. Some are designed to be piloted, some autonomous. 

There are big companies like Airbus and Boeing, and little companies you’ve never heard of with names like Joby and Wisk and Lilium. Los Angeles is partnering with both Hyundai and a startup named Archer. 

The industry sees this ramping up over a decade or more, even if the mayor’s office touts flyers by 2023. In the early years, it’ll be expensive to fly, but the goal is to bring the price-per-ride down so that people fly regularly — as a rideshare. The idea of people owning their own flying car is not a significant part of the business model. Within the city, it’s like Lyft. But some startups are also looking to serve as regional connectors, flying from Silverlake to Palm Springs, for example.

The city’s UAM blueprint is based on a report called the Principles of the Urban Sky, which LA put together with the World Economic Forum. It estimates, among other things, that we’ll have 23,000 vehicles in the air by the year 2030, and that a ride will be about $30 a pop.

Billions and billions of dollars are flowing into this industry, from hedge funds and people like Google founder Larry Page. So, there are a lot of people who really want to see flying cars in our near future. And not just air taxis. There are all kinds of other proposed applications for these things: regional or rural flights, transporting cargo, hovering ambulances or troop carriers. Even racing.

This is an industry estimated to be worth $1.5 to $3 trillion by 2040. 

UAM companies and boosters say flying cars can reduce traffic, provide affordable mobility for everybody, and create a less polluted environment. 

The UAM industry also says the vehicles will be much quieter than helicopters, but potential noise complaints are just one of the hurdles they’re dealing with. There’s also safety related to a bunch of aircraft flying over dense urban areas. Airspace belongs to the FAA, so there are struggles, or more charitably, intense conversations, over whether the city, the state, or Washington will decide how these things will use the skies.

Will they solve traffic?

While the technocrats envision a total redesign of city infrastructure, airspace, and transportation to make way for UAM, for the LA driver, it all boils down to one question: Will flying cars actually make traffic go away?

Susan Shaheen is a mobility expert at Berkeley who’s studied autonomous vehicles, carsharing, and the environment. She and many others think that highways in the sky will behave like highways on the ground: “The notion that if you create more capacity, it'll just fill up, and we've seen that with highway building.”

It’s induced demand in the skies: If everyone’s flying around and the highways open up a little, people will just move back to cars because they’re cheaper and now there’s not traffic slowdowns, which then creates congestion.

Hyundai’s Pam Cohn says we shouldn’t think of flying cars solving the problems of traffic alone.

“UAM has been called the ultimate congestion buster, as have autonomous ground vehicles, as have micro-mobility,” she says. “And from our perspective, the answer is actually that all of them need to come together in order to beat congestion.”

This makes sense, but it’s also breakfast-cereal logic. You know how commercials for Lucky Charms say “part of a balanced breakfast?” Meaning it’s healthy if you also eat a grapefruit? That’s what the UAM industry is saying: Flying cars are part of a balanced transportation breakfast, along with public transit and bikes and regular cars. But whether the flying car is good or bad for transportation — whether it’s a grapefruit or a bowl of brightly colored sugary crap — that remains to be seen.

Hyundai’s vision of “multimodal” transportation includes flying cars, self-driving living rooms, and a “vertiport” where you’ll have a selection of transportation options and, probably, an overpriced latte. Credit: CES 2020 Hyundai/YouTube.

“I think in the future, there's an opportunity for us to really rethink how we shape cities and how we develop cities. And I think that that might be where you get to the congestion reduction,” says Dan Dalton, vice president of Global Partnerships at a Bay Area UAM startup called Wisk.

“But in the near term, I think it's more about how do we impact individuals individually, versus trying to restructure entire traffic flows?”

In other words, urban air mobility is good if you need to get across town quickly, or if you want to avoid rush-hour, or if you’ve got to get to the bar for happy hour. 

There is so much money invested in a flying car future that it’s hard to imagine it not coming to pass in some way. Not even here and already too big to fail. If creating highways in the skies is the goal, what’s actually good for us earth-dwellers may take a back seat.