A dramatic scene in my story requires a pursuit with a vehicle “threading the needle” in flight between some structures. I need to describe how small that hole would be in relation to a typical roadway. This question establishes the “typical” roadway for flying cars.
First these are not aircraft but ground effect vehicles. While Star Trek, Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Jetsons, and every scifi I can think of has "magically hovering" private transportation, I am trying to design a more reality-based highway system for the flying cars in my world. A rudimentary version of these cars exist today, I am merely needing road engineering for these smaller, more maneuverable vehicles working in open “road” traffic.
Ground Effect Vehicle Highway System should accommodate the following elements:
- Ground effect vehicles (GEVs) are used instead of true aircraft.
- A typical vehicle would be extended to 10 feet width for flight and have a body height of 5 feet, running up to 15 feet in length. This is the area it presents to gusts/turbulence. It’s loaded mass is typically 2,500 lbs.
- The GEVs are powered by hydrogen fuel cells with a limited energy density.
- The GEVs cruise in ground effect between 2-5 meters over a surface, reducing drag and increasing efficiency.
- The GEVs normally travel at a speed of 160 kph (100 mph) and can maneuver through 0.8G turns at that speed via RAM air ducting and dynamic body control surfaces, at a cost to fuel economy if speed is to be maintained.
- The GEVs fly on a continuous route that is made up of any flat surface such as canals, open water, or grassy fairways. Passing lanes are vertical. They drive as normal cars otherwise.
- Drivers are not left to their own judgement at intersections: collision avoidance assisted by the road itself means only deliberate effort could cause a collision at intersections.
- Assume the system has been advanced to eliminate the possibility of two cars colliding mid-air at intersections, and also that collision avoidance systems can evade potential collisions when any car approaches without autonomous navigation (detailed below).
- Clear rules of the road determine what lane you can be in for any given situation (detailed below).
Here is a more detailed explanation of the highway design:
These are NOT aircraft
Principles of aircraft, which generate aerodynamic lift with their plane surfaces, do not apply to air cushion vehicles. While both vehicles rely of a pressure differential across their horizontal control surfaces; the aircraft reduces pressure above the plane, while the air cushion craft increases the pressure beneath the plane. Please watch this RC PAR ekranoplan in free flight and GE flight. Note that it is unstable in the air, but when it returns to GE altitude it immediately stabilizes on the air cushion. Therefore, please avoid answers relating to flight principles of aircraft. Turning, stalling, and most other dynamics of open air flight do not work the same for these vehicles. A high pressure cushion is actively created below the craft, so it can not bank or stall while in ground effect. Therefore assume the engineering challenges of turning and maneuvering at speed have been resolved, and controlled free-air flight is possible at an enormous efficiency cost A Computer rapidly adjusts control surfaces and ducts to hold stabile free-air flight.
The GEVs are designed to be more efficient than traditional aircraft, and this is at the heart of this question. They fly in ground effect, which is the area of airspace that is affected by the surface below the vehicle. This reduces the drag on the vehicle's underside, which allows it to fly more efficiently. The GEVs cannot travel as far as a traditional aircraft on a single tank of fuel and every maneuver costs fuel. The highways are therefore designed to allow vehicles free flight with minimal maneuvering. The system also does not need the cars make costly stop and starts at intersections.
This question only concerns a design for a GEV highway system. In urban streets or irregular terrain the vehicles operate on the ground as regular cars. Click here for a video of the cars I designed during a typical GE flight. Note that this is not urban traffic, it's a highway system which simply expands the suburban area around a business center, like the American Interstate system. Even with the average car boasting 800 BHP, the LH2 economy in this world lacks the energy density to give everyone their own personal aircraft. This is why vertical lanes are not possible.
Intersections are handled the way we currently handle passing situations, by a brief acceleration to overcome the obstacle. My vehicles lift up and enter free space at intersections for brief periods at a large fuel expense.
There is of course a complete civil engineering task to fully design traffic flow in this scenario but assume that is accomplished, and please refer to the items outside the scope of this question at the bottom. I'm focusing narrowly on horizontal lane separation given that only real-world aerodynamic forces are maneuvering the vehicles. Here is the jist of the how highway system works:
- Roads are not rigidly constructed, they are augmented reality overlays in the driver's field of view. Except for basic emergency markers, all traffic signals, lane indicators, signs, and even commercial billboards are augmented reality overlays on your viewscreen.
Drivers will never need to compensate for normal wind gusts. "Smart Roads" provide active air movement data to vehicles. If a cross current is detected the road sends the "set and drift" data to approaching cars, which anticipate and auto-correct for most gusts up to 45 mph cross-winds. Obviously the effectiveness diminishes at low speeds, so for this question assume traffic travels at the speed limit.
Drivers never “swerve.” Smart roads dynamically adjust their own lanes based on road conditions, such as an accident vehicle or passing ship. If your path will be obstructed for any reason such as an accident or passing ship, your display will project a "hill" ahead and your car simply jumps over the obstruction. Proximity sensors prevent tailgating, so cars can never be surprised.
The car fully controls yaw to place the car on the smart road, ascending or descending as needed. Drivers work in two dimensions only. The feel of driving the vehicle is much like a car, with a slight addition of pitch and roll in turbulent air. The road determines their correct altitude until they go "off roading".
Exiting the highway is done by pulling out of the main lane of traffic, decelerating, and banking away onto another "road" or off-road area.
Cars are smart, but not fully automated. They have proximity-based cruise control, predictive gust correction, and lane-drift correction. Mostly however, the driver determines the lane and speed.
There is no commercial freight on this highway but the highway will cross marine freight lanes and other obstacles occasionally. This again is handled by hopping the road over the obstacle in a virtual bridge. Again, cars automatically follow the road and there are no surprises.
Turns are no less than 250m inside radius and speed limits reduce to 80mph. (This is a correction - originally wrote “diameter”)
There is no anti-gravity anything. They rely on Power-Augmented RAM for lift and real-world aerodynamics.
(These pictures are concept art for reference, not a final design)
I do expect the vehicles to still be "road legal", meaning they are no more than 8 feet wide on ground, 10 feet max with extensible wings. They have very basic wheels which can brake and provide urban/neighborhood propulsion.
Today physical road lanes are officially exactly 11 feet wide, for a maximum legal vehicle width of 8 feet.
With consideration for minimizing correction maneuvers: If I were to visualize traffic in this type of highway, what would be the normal lane separation on this highway?
An answer addresses how close we can be to oncoming traffic without disruptive turbulence, and to passing traffic in a lane to either side. I need the highway as narrow as possible without creating an excessive need for correctional maneuvers when other cars interract.
Vehicle performance will be much like the vehicle in this patent, however thrust and yaw can be used to decelerate the car at 0.6g on the road, but not at all in free flight where obstacles need to be handled as a plane would.
Items outside the scope of the question
I am only looking at lane separation for this specific road. As I describe driving on this highway in the story, what does it look like? The following other related engineering problems will be handled elsewhere:
Traffic queuing for entering and exiting vehicles
Vehicle technical specifications not already included
Urban (low speed) travel
Smart road fundamentals of operation
Weather other than winds (precipitation, temperature, etc.)