Flying car aficionados like to bandy around a quote from the automobile’s greatest magnate — Henry Ford. In 1940, 23 years after Glenn Curtiss invented the first failed attempt at a vehicle that could convert readily from car to plane and back, Ford famously proclaimed that “a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”
They like this quote because it frames them as the true believers in a historical inevitability, and not as the stubborn dreamers who have struggled for decades with little progress against both massive engineering obstacles and broad public cynicism.
But the truth is that flying cars really are here. Really. The bulk of the engineering problems have been solved, and the first commercial aerial vehicles are set to roll off the production lines in the next few years.
Three companies in particular are locked in a battle to capture the early adopters market. Of these, Moller International is the most infamous. Its founder Paul Moller has dedicated more than 50 years of his life to a quest for a flying car that’ll change the world. The current work-in-progress incarnation of his flying car is a range of small vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, which can travel modest distances on conventional roads at up to 50 km/h.
Moller believes that his Skycar, if it ever moves from prototype to production, will revolutionise personal transportation. It apparently requires little training to operate and can carry up to four passengers (depending on the model). But without a critical mass to bring the price down, the Skycar is expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy — making it a vehicle only suitable for the military, the hyper-rich, and the upper tiers of the rental market.
Terrafugia’s upcoming car/plane hybrid is expected to cost a similar amount. Engadget reported in April that the company is targeting a price tag between $300,000 and $400,000 for its Transition vehicle when it gets into full production later this year. Unlike the Skycar, the Transition will drive at highway speeds and fit in a single-car garage (after you fold the wings into the side of the vehicle).
The Transition will also require a 2,000 ft runway for takeoff and landing, however. If you want vertical takeoff and landing in a semi-autonomous flying car, you’ll have to wait several more years for Terrafugia’s TF-X — that’s assuming it gets through certification.
Then there’s the new player, AeroMobil, which has been showing its Flying Roadster 3.0 prototype around the world this year to drum up interest. This one may turn out to be the priciest of the lot, with a price tag of several hundred thousand Euros. But with the high price tag will come a flying car that boasts beautiful sculpted looks and a whopping 200 km/h road speed.
Assuming all of the final pieces come together and these cars — or others like Krossblade’s SkyCruiser — come to market, there are still two little niggles that Ford’s quote fails to deal with: will anyone actually want one? And how do we transition into a world of flying cars?
The concept of aircraft for personal transportation is still a new one, so there’s a huge amount of logistics to figure out.
All flying cars currently require a pilot’s licence to fly as well as a driver’s licence to drive, but mass adoption won’t come unless some kind of “air driving” licence gets certified. And most aviation and transportation authorities are going to have issues with the idea of people taking off from random parks and driveways. There may be problems with border checks, too, if these vehicles can fly far enough to enter another country.
The European Union’s recently-completed myCopter project hoped to solve most of these problems — to determine precisely what technologies, plans, and social policies are required to make mass adoption of personal aerial transportation systems viable. But after four years it barely scratched the surface.
Its results indicate that flying cars will need to make huge strides in automation systems and augmentation interfaces in order to safely and completely bridge the gap between highly-trained pilots and ordinary car drivers.
Moreover, the fundamental technical and logistical questions of how flying cars might fit into the complex infrastructure and architecture of modern-day cities couldn’t come close to being answered because existing data is too sparse.
The flying car may be just a few years away as a functional piece of technology, but it seems that the idea of flying door to door between work and home in floating traffic lanes is still very much in the realms of science fiction. — Richard Moss (@MossRC)