When we think about the future, we’re inspired by a combination of movies, books and other pop culture references. Among all the fanciful gizmos and gadgets, the flying car is one of the most classic futuristic concepts in sci-fi.
For my entire life, I’ve been tantalized with the idea that, one day, I could access news on any screen, video chat with friends and cruise across the sky — all during my daily commute.
In the 1960s, The Jetsons predicted many of today’s technological advances, and we haven’t even reached 2062, the show’s setting. Today, we have touchscreens, video chat and even a robot maid, if you count the Roomba — but where is my flying car?
The truth is, there are already flying cars and they’ve been around for decades. Most of us just had the wrong idea.
Terrafugia is the leading company when it comes to manufacturing “flying cars” — or more accurately, roadable aircraft. The company is currently in the late stages of prototyping the Transition, a car-sized aircraft with folding wings for easy road travel.
The Transition was not actually intended as a flying car, but a new kind of airplane. Terrafugia’s intent was to make flying more affordable and accessible. The craft is what’s known as a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA), a fairly new classification added in 2004, after years of work by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and Terrafugia.
Richard Gersh, Terrafugia’s vice president of business development, says that pop culture has confused us into calling it a flying car.
“We’ve now come to the realization that — although we do maintain it’s a roadable aircraft, because it is first and foremost an airplane, but has the added capability to be driven — in pop culture, and everybody’s mind, it’s a flying car,” Gersh tells Mashable.
Though the terms “roadable aircraft” and “flying car” are used somewhat interchangeably, they’re not quite the same. A roadable aircraft can legally drive on the roads, but is still primarily an airplane. It must adhere to a significant number of regulations. For instance, it has to take off and land at an airport; so don’t expect any cars to zoom over gridlock traffic anytime soon.
Flying Cars Are Real
However, that doesn’t mean road-friendly flying cars don’t exist. The Maverick LSA looks like a dune buggy floating by parachute. Categorized as an LSA, it requires a pilot license to fly and a driver’s license to drive. Again, this is not a get-out-of-traffic pass just yet.
The Maverick does not need to meet federal motor vehicle standards, however. It’s classified as a kit car and is thereby exempt from those onerous requirements.
“Most past attempts at flying cars have been more like ‘roadable aircraft’ and have suffered from complications, due to the use of a fixed-wing design,” Maverick writes on its website. “In addition to the advantages of a stowable ram-air wing, the Maverick is designed as a car first and flying machine second.”
Were we really so misinformed?
Roadable aircrafts have been around for nearly a century, according to the EAA, an international organization of aviation enthusiasts based in Oshkosh, Wis.
“People have been trying to put a car and an airplane together since the Wright brothers,” says Dick Knapinski, of EAA communications.
Throughout many years of attempts, Knapinski says the most notable that had any measure of success before now was the Aerocar, built in the 1940s.
Technically, the Aerocar would’ve been considered a roadable aircraft. The prototype’s folding wings, shown above, allowed the road vehicle to convert into flight mode in five minutes, by one person. When the rear license plate flipped up, the operator could connect the propeller shaft and attach a pusher propeller.
The Aerocar was cut short, however, because it was unable to attract enough buyers. Production ended after six prototypes — one of which flew in 2008 at the EAA AirVenture OshKosh, the largest annual U.S. aviation convention.
Significant technological advances often take years to be adopted into the mainstream market. We had smartphones and the Internet before we were ready for them. Is a 1940s fail really the only thing holding us back from Chitty Chitty Bang-ing it?
Unfortunately, it is much more complicated.
In This Economy?!
First of all, it turns out airplanes are much more expensive than cars.
Terrafugia built the Transition as an airplane, targeting leisure travelers. That explains the estimated $279,000 price tag, which is not quite fixed as the Transition is still in prototyping. It won’t be on the market until late 2013; but there are currently almost 100 deposits for the aircraft.
The Maverick may be primarily a car, but it will still cost you $94,000.
Both of these vehicles run on premium fuel, like a luxury car. Terrafugia’s Transition gets 35 mpg on the road and five gallons per hour at cruise. The Maverick gets 30 mpg.
The most apparent difficulty is designing and engineering a vehicle that meets the needs of both a motor vehicle and an airplane.
The entire fuselage of an airplane needs to be as aerodynamic as possible. A car might have aerodynamic features on the top and sides of the body, but it should be wider and heavier on the bottom so it hugs the road and has good traction.
Until now, technology has been one of the biggest challenges for Terrafugia.
“The pilot planes that are available today are a lot more efficient and lighter,” Gersh says. “They put up more horsepower.”
Many of the materials used to construct light sport aircrafts like Terrafugia’s were not available 10 to 15 years ago. The Transition has been in the works for about six years, encompassing three different prototypes — the third of which completed its first test flight in April.
“The ability of our engineers, most of whom come from MIT, to design a plane like this using computer simulations also was not available in the past,” Gersh says.
Advanced technology has made it easier to build both cars and aircrafts as a separate entities. Computer-assisted design lets engineers run more accurate tests before going into production, but that has also raised the stakes for an interchangeable flying car.
Today, there are more intensive regulations on features like bumpers, mirrors and airbags. The same applies to airplane manufacturing, but with different features. A flying car would need to meet the standards of both.
It’s Just Physics
George Lucas made the concept seem so simple in Star Wars movies, but that’s because science fiction allows you to break laws of physics and gravity.
The flying vehicles in Star Wars don’t resemble any type of engine in a car or plane. They use repulsorlifts, which repel gravity and allow something to float — like when two magnets repel each other.
Even if scientists discovered how to utilize this technology in vehicles next week, they would still need to work out the logistics of navigation. Tires apply force to a car, allowing it to slow down, speed up and stop. There’s no way to apply force when you’re floating in the air. It would require equal-sized engines on the front and sides to properly navigate the sky roads.
Laws and Regulations
Let’s say flying cars were scientifically possible. Logistically, if you were to own a flying car, would you take off from the street in front of your house, or would you have to go to one the 5,000 U.S. general-aviation airports to take off?
The most complex example of flying car infrastructure appears in Star Wars: Episode VI, on the fictional planet Coruscant. The entire planet is one large city that completely utilizes air transportation.
In an ideal world, there might be a designated roadway system for flying cars to take off and land, similar to exits and on-ramps on the interstate. Cars that choose to stay on the road can continue travelling on their paths; and the flying cars can enter and exit as permitted. Sky-roads would need to be monitored and maintained, which necessitates legislation and funding.
This is just one of the many barriers keeping me from living my Judy Jetson life, right now.
Even then, there are so many other legalities to overcome. Drivers would be held responsible for two separate sets of laws, with some merging in between. For example, if a cop tried to pull me over for speeding on the road, what would happen if I just flew away? All police cars would suddenly have to be like the spinners in Blade Runner, in order to monitor both regular cars and flying ones.
Licensing is another factor. There are obvious differences between driving a car and operating an aircraft, including how one becomes qualified to do so. If flying cars were a viable and common option, would I receive my license through the DMV or FAA? The logical steps might involve going from learner’s permit to license to flight registration.
And you thought going to the DMV was bad.
I Want to Be a Pilot
Let’s say I did get my license to operate an aircraft. It’s a feasible thought, unless you’re my mother.
Different levels of pilot certification range from student to airline transport. The process is extensive, demanding and time-consuming. It isn’t impossible, though. Gersh says there are nearly 600,000 pilots in the U.S. who would be qualified to operate a flying car. For perspective, there were 209,618,000 licensed drivers in 2009.
Each license allows more privilege. A student pilot is similar to a student driver; he or she must be with an instructor at all times. Naturally, there are far more prerequisites to become a student pilot than driver.
The sport pilot is the next level of certification. This permits LSA operation, the new middle ground between aviation enthusiast and full-fledged pilot. It is a significant breakthrough for the future of flying cars as a commercial vehicle, but that doesn’t make the requirements to attain this license any easier. A sport pilot can only ride with one passenger, can fly no higher than 10,000 feet and is restricted to day-time flying.
Higher levels of certification come with increased privileges, up the line from recreational pilot to private pilot, and so on.
Assuming there would be more than one style of flying car, a driver would need a special license to operate an SUV instead of a car, or a special certification to drive at night. Sure, there are different licenses for commercial drivers or motorcyclists, but becoming a certified pilot is even more extensive and complicated.
Do we really want to add all of that to the DMV?
Finally, and perhaps the scariest issue, is human error. EAA spokesman Knapinski estimates that 70-80% of all aircraft accidents were caused by human error.
“A well-manufactured airplane and a well-trained pilot is a very safe combination,” Knapinski says.
In 2011, 90% of car accidents occurred because of our own errors — be it road rage, DUIs, texting, speeding or reckless driving, to name a few.
Why in the world would we put these people in the sky?
Flying cars have not caught up to pop culture’s standards, but organizations like Terrafugia and the EAA are working hard to make the feat more feasible than ever. Accidents will remain a large concern until we have patented more driverless cars and airplanes — which isn’t as far off as you might think. Google has been working on this concept for a long time. It might not be the flying car we’ve been “promised” by the movies, but it is futuristic.
Until the technology and physics catch up to our imaginations, and until regulations for the sky and road exist in harmony, we’ll just have to sit through traffic.