Flying Cars – the future of personal transportation or a thing of the past?

September 17, 2012 in Auto Blog, Concept Cars, Future Fuels, Future Material by K.R

Ever since man started thinking, he has been fascinated by the idea of flying. Gods, Demons, mythological creatures have been associated with the ability to fly; stories of unsuccessful attempts of humans at flying have been around for thousands of years. One of the earliest being the Greek bloke Icarus who strapped wings made of wax, he did fly but not for long. From the Greek mythology to the modern day super heroes – flight has been considered the ultimate super power and even though we have managed to achieve over a 100 years of flight, it still remains a complicated thing. It is not as easy as something you park in your garage or get a speeding ticket for, flying is still as impossible to the common man as it was in the days of Icarus.
'The Fall of Icarus', 17th century, Musée Antoine Vivenel
Frankly, we are not designed to fly as much as we are designed to drive and driving may not be as cool as flying but it still is a cool thing to do. If you ask me, I am in control of the car and that I am not drunk when I am driving but I can’t say the same about the pilot in the commercial jet I am flying in. And then there is the weather factor, every time I flew over Denver, I prayed for my dear life as the turbulence got the best of me. It is in such situations that it is hard to believe that an aluminum tube with wings filled with highly combustible liquid at 30,000 feet from the surface of the earth which is being blown around the entire state of Colorado by violent winds, with no parachutes and possibly drunk pilots can actually be safe. If only I had a much-relaxed schedule and a road to my destination, I would even drive to Papua New Guinea.

Sometimes I think my fear of airplanes is because I don’t know how to fly one and I don’t feel comfortable to trust someone else with my life. Maybe flying an airplane is as easy as driving a car and it really is a safe thing to do. If Ford and GM made airplanes for the masses, I might not hesitate to buy one and fly to work every day.  So I set off to explore the mythical and elusive Flying Car.

Inventors and scientists have shaped the progress of mankind. Some have been pioneers and some have been lunatics and then there is the third kind; pioneers who were lunatics. Some of those got strange ideas when they saw the first airplane. They wanted to make cars fly or planes drivable and so the Flying car concept was born and although this idea and some attempts have been around for about a 100 years, it never really worked in the real world.

Flying Car

(Jess Dixon’s Flying automobile 1940)

The concept of the flying car got a lot of attention when the idea was in its infancy but that has slowed down a lot and I am forced to think that the inventors have realized that cars and planes just don’t go together. There have been close to a hundred attempts by different inventors at trying to create a portable flying machine and none were met success.

Flying is also a dangerous thing to do, it needs a lot of training,  a lot of space both in the air and at land and it is a very expensive affair. An even bigger problem is fuel. Cars are able to achieve 40 miles to the gallon and even that is not enough. World fuel is running out at an alarming rate and cars are adapting to that change but since the flying car is not even ready to run on conventional fuel yet, it may to too little too late when it is finally completed.

Training to be a pilot is much more demanding than learning to drive a car, I learned driving my dad’s car in one day and I have heard similar stories from my friends who took to driving at a very young age with very little time spent in learning. Flying is a different ball game all together, depending on the size and type of aircraft, learning to fly may take anywhere from 80 to several hundred hours.

Terrafugia Transition
Terrafugia -- 2012 NYIAS -- front view, folding wings
The Terrafugia Transition is a lightweight flying car being built by Terrafugia a Massachusetts based company. The development started in 2006 and the Terrafugia Transition took its maiden flight in March 2009. How much does it cost? Well I will come out straightforward at you, $279,000. The good news is that it looks right which means it should fly right.

 

Moller Skycar
Moller Skycars
Although not the first in the business, the Moller skycar is without a doubt the most popular name when it comes to flying cars. Paul Moller has been working on his designs for the past 40 years which is a very long time, the videos show that the car is airworthy, however it is not perfect yet and if you thought the Terrafugia Transition was expensive, then think again. The Moller Skycar M400 is expected to cost $500,000.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roadable_aircraft

Even if flying cars could be made small enough to fit in a regular car garage with the ability to vertically take off and land, it still would be a very difficult thing to manage. An airplane moves in a three dimensional space as opposed to a car which moves in a 2 dimensional space. This changes a lot of things. Airplanes cannot be pulled over if something goes wrong, and if something does go wrong with the craft, forget getting late for work, you may never even get there.  Even if enough people got trained to fly their flying cars, what route will they follow? Will there be freeways in the sky or will people just head straight for their destinations? If there are specific routes to follow while in the sky, then what is the point of flying? And if not, then the one good thing that would happen is that the science teacher will have no problem in explaining Brownian motion to her students, all she needs to do is point to the sky at 8AM.

In the event of an accident, there are air bags in a car to protect the people in it, on the other hand the manufacturers will not bother to put these in an airplane and the reason is a no-brainer. There has however been a lot of talk about using ballistic parachutes in light aircraft. The ballistic parachute will shoot a parachute in the event of an emergency, the canopy will deploy and the light aircraft will land safely. This can definitely come in handy for flying cars however there is one problem. When the plane is brought down by a parachute, there will be very little that the pilot can do to steer clear of houses, trees and power lines. Accidents are bound to happen in a world of flying cars and when they do, we will see people getting wedged in the Chimney or falling on the porch.

All these facts point in one direction – “Flying cars” may disappear just the way the auto-giro and the zeppelin disappeared however we humans have always pushed the envelope and that is what makes us human. The Flying Car is not a reality now, it may not be 10 years from now may be even 20 years from now but with advances in other fields such as alternative energy and better materials and advances in computers and unmanned aerial vehicles, it just might make a come back and that may be the next big leap for us.

Having expressed my fear of flying, my hatred for storms and my displeasure with people falling on my terrace, I would still like to give it a shot if flying cars are made possible. Over a hundred years ago, when people switched from horse backs to motorcars, there were quite a few accidents; some went up in flames, others ended in trees or ravines. There were no roads built for cars and there were no safety considerations. However progress came slowly and steadily. Knowing that driving is dangerous, people still bought cars and drove them and the manufacturers made the cars safer, the authorities made the streets drivable and brought in regulations.  I am looking forward to the flying car being a reality, eventually that is the route we all will take.