Flying Cars - Are we really doing this?

There’s always been talk about flying cars. People have always been tinkering and drawing on the backs of napkins. And for creators and dreamers and sci-fi lovers, the flying car has always been the symbol of a futuristic society. See Back to the Future, Total Recall (the remake), or The Fifth Element if you want some examples.

If you’re like me, you’ve always envisioned flying cars as firmly ensconced right there in sci-fi future – in this lovely place we’re apparently heading towards but never intended to actually reach. But thanks to drone development over the last decade, two things have happened: lightweight, super-strong carbon-fiber materials are readily available for bodies, and flight stabilizing computer systems are much cheaper.

By the sound of it, things are heating up and two key competitors have dreams of getting flying cars in front of consumers within the next five years.

Terrafugia is a company founded by 5 MIT aerospace engineers, all pilots. Their Transition can be reserved today and will sell for a base price of around $279,000. The Transition is more like a driving plane, a road-capable aircraft with folding wings cleared for civilian use by the FAA. In other words, you still need a runway for takeoff and landing. You cannot just hover your way out of beach traffic.

Besides being able to say that you own one, a key benefit I hear is that when you land at your destination air strip, you can drive away without the hassle of finding your rental car, and there’s no need to store your plane in a hangar. A big win for the Transition is that it runs on regular unleaded gasoline. Road tests have gone very well, people have been impressed, and it is in the final stages of testing.

Close on their heels, the Slovakian company AeroMobil announced at SXSW this year that it will have its AeroMobil 3.0 to market by 2017. This sleek two-seater with its own fold-up wings is also more of a street-legal aircraft that requires a short strip of “only a few hundred meters” for takeoff and landing. According to their website, we can expect the price to be “several hundreds of thousand euros.”

The main audience for these cars at this time seems to be automobile and aviation enthusiasts. Think sports car married with sports aircraft. These vehicles solve problems both logistical and monetary for weekend flight enthusiasts.

So, we can expect to see some people driving their planes down the highway beside us in the near future, but everyone in the industry agrees that the next generation of flying cars has to actually be…flying cars. What this means is achieving VTOL – vertical takeoff and landing – so that no runway is needed.

Terrafugia is already working on this. Their TF-X is a four-seat hybrid electric flying car with twin propellers and a megawatt of power for lift off and then a ducted fan for thrust. It will have a 500 mile range and will cruise at 200 mph on its electric motors and 300 hp engine. Terrafugia wants it to be “statistically safer than driving a modern automobile” and from the sound of their website, this flying car should be able to do pretty much everything by itself. It should be so simple to operate that you should be able to learn to drive, er, fly in under five hours. They haven’t built anything yet, but they have a very cool rendering that shows you backing out of your suburban garage and taking flight from what looks like  a neighborhood park.

With all of this activity there are plenty of skeptics. In April, Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson got together to talk about their issues with flying cars, and Esquire captured their thoughts. Instead of flying cars, more tunnels, they think, is the way to go.  Despite what Terrafugia says, safety is a big concern.

I guess the question is…what are we trying to solve with the flying car? Or are we just having fun pursuing a goal that we’ve been desperate to achieve since Glenn Curtiss’ attempt in 1917, a mere fourteen years after the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk? If we’re trying to solve issues with congestion or energy consumption, are there better ways than keeping the same transportation model and just pushing it up to the sky?

But, say that flying cars aren’t meant to become the ubiquitous mode of transportation of the future.  Are there still other uses beyond selfie moments for the rich and famous? With VTOL, emergency responders could cut through traffic. They could get to remote areas or areas where roads have become impassable because of weather and natural disasters. Flying cars could help with humanitarian efforts in the same ways. Of course there are military uses. The technologies being developed for flying cars could end up changing the aviation industry.

However the flying car ends up being used, it is clear that here in 2015 technology is finally catching up to our imaginings. Let us know — what’s the allure of the flying car to you? Do you think this is the next big thing in transportation?

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