New Top EA Cause: Flying Cars

by John_Maxwell1 min read1st Apr 20199 comments



As a case study in flow-through effects, this post analyzes the long-run impact of flying cars.

Effective Altruism has long appreciated the anti-poverty effects of immigration from a developing country to a developed one. What's less well-appreciated is that getting into the country is not always enough. The highest wages and greatest economic opportunities are increasingly concentrated in crowded urban areas, where finding space to live can be a major problem.

Residents of developed-world economic powerhouses such as San Francisco and New York City frequently oppose more housing in their neighborhoods, and that's understandable. INRIX is a company that collects traffic data from drivers using phone apps. They estimate that the average San Francisco driver lost 116 hours to congestion in 2018. That's almost three forty-hour work weeks of sitting in traffic! The corresponding average for an NYC driver was 133 hours.

Researchers have repeatedly found that commuting makes people miserable. One author even claims that for someone making $50-60k a year, cutting an hourlong commute each way out of their life is the happiness equivalent of an additional $40k in income. So it's no wonder that California state legislation to increase housing density focuses on areas which have good public transportation access.

In the long run, this model is limited by the amount of public transportation we build. The trouble is that public transportation can be fantastically expensive. Things are especially bad in the San Francisco Bay Area, where counties have pledged $21 billion to expand the local transit network. Given BART's history of cost overruns and construction delays, even that number is probably optimistic.

This is where flying cars come in. By adding a third dimension to our transportation infrastructure, flying cars will make congestion a thing of the past. And they look good from a cost perspective: Larry Page is a huge flying car buff, and although it's hard to come up with hard numbers, investments and acquisitions in these startups appear to run in the $1-10 million range. (They're cheap enough that Larry is sponsoring three flying car projects simultaneously!) One project estimates they'll eventually sell a flying car for the price of an SUV.

How should our civilization be spending its money: $20+ billion to solve the transit problems of one metropolitan area, or $1 billion each for five flying car companies to solve the transit problems of the entire world & make science fiction reality while we're at it? I know which one I would pick.

Please check the publication date of this post before taking it too seriously.