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.



9 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:27 AM
New Comment

For what it's worth, I'd really like to see more highly speculative ideas like this with simple Fermi estimates of value. Even if it's ridiculous, it could still have a very small chance of being viable, and of inspiring other ideas.

This may be an April 1st post, but honestly, I appreciate the main idea.

My latest is a small effort in this direction.

The Terra Ignota series takes place in a world where global poverty has been solved by flying cars, so this is definitely well-supported by fictional evidence (from which we should generalise).

I heard Elon Musk speculate about the feasibility of flying cars a while back. (I believe on his Joe Rogan interview?)

Musk thought they would be too noisy & kick up too much air to be feasible for use in urban & suburban areas. NIMBY-ism and a majoritarian desire for peace & quiet would make them impractical to roll out at scale.

You just have to build a propeller which produces relaxing brown noise.

Other naysayers like to complain that "most battery technology right now isn’t ready for anything other than short hops". The solution to that is also simple: Put battery replacement/charging stations on top of every building. You'd make a series of hops from one battery station to another on flying buses. The entire thing would be run by Lyft, naturally.

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

Oh no! You totally got me!

A small gripe with the title - you don’t make any argument for this tech solving global poverty, just congestion in the wealthiest cities on earth. I know transportation has economic benefits elsewhere but your post makes no claims about this.

I want more posts about flying cars.

I’m still assuming the reliability requirement is too high. If a car stops working it rolls to a halt, a flying crashes into a residential area. Planes don’t do this, but they have costly constant checks. Maybe a fleet owner (non personal ownership) and lots of sensors for automated checks makes the reliability feasible.

Similarly security seems like a daunting challenge.

Noise I hadn’t thought of.

Do we even need them though, if a city goes full AV you can theoretically have very high speed regular cars and no junctions / traffic. At even just 60mph, a 30 min commute encompasses an area significantly larger than Greater London. And commuting in an AV could be very comfortable with a desk and WiFi. Whilst it’s hard to work on trains I could imagine even “going for an AV pomodoro” in the middle of the day just for the concentration benefits of reclusion and a fixed travel time.

Assuming good automation is required for good flying cars, I’m also not sold on automation being net-good for employment. Life satisfaction - sure.

I hate April 1st so much.