Where are the flying cars? Why a century-old dream still hasn't taken off
People have dreamed about flying cars for more than a hundred years. We've seen them in movies, as ideas from car companies, and, in some cases, as actual prototypes that work.
Even Ford Automotive considered buying the Taylor Aerocar in the 1970s so they could create a commercial version. But the fact is that most attempts have never reached a stage to be made in large numbers.
So, what appears to be the problem? Let's find out.
What is a flying car?
But, before we get into that, we should probably make it clear what exactly is considered flying cars.
So, what are they? Well, it's a car that can fly, right? In actual fact, it is a little more complicated than that.
Flying cars, or roadable aircraft if you'd prefer, can be more accurately defined as a kind of hybrid road vehicle with fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft capabilities. They are, in other words, part road vehicle, part helicopter, and part airplane.
Why don't we have flying cars yet?
The short answer is they are incredibly complicated things to design and build. But, obviously, it is a little more complex than that.
One of the primary issues is that the concept merges two completely different technologies intended for entirely different jobs.
For engineers, there are two sets of requirements for flying cars, most of which conflict with each other.
For example, for an airplane to be aerodynamic and have enough lift, it needs to be light and narrow. On the other hand, cars need to be wide and heavy enough to create downforce and stay on the road.
On the ground, components like side-view mirrors are important, but in the air, they just slow the aircraft down. This makes the aircraft fly less far and use more fuel. It can also make things shaky.
The power-to-weight ratio of a car can also be changed by the addition of wings and rotor blades. The more weight a vehicle has, the more power you'll need to move it. But if the engine is too heavy, the vehicle won't fly.
At the same time, if the wings are too small, the car won't get off the ground - quite the quandary.
Creating a vehicle that does all of this is expensive and takes a lot of time. Because, unlike cars and planes, there is no long-term plan for making flying cars.
To make flying cars a part of our everyday lives, we must change how we think about them. This is what companies like Uber, GM, and Hyundai have done with vertical takeoff and landing (VTOLs) vehicles. VTOLs, or aircraft that can take off and land vertically, looks more like a helicopter or a drone than a car.
Even though VTOLs have wheels, they are not designed to be driven on roads. Instead, companies are investing money into developing them to be used as "air taxis" for intra-city travel, taking people from one landing pad to another.
Even though their design is similar to that of some existing military planes, they need to be altered to work in crowded cities, like using electricity for power rather than the fuel. Electric powertrains are better for the environment because they don't use fuel, and their mechanics are more straightforward than those of jet-powered models.
But that doesn't mean that making eVTOLs is easy.
Most are being designed to use distributed electric propulsion, which means they will have a lot of rotors and motors that work together. Unlike a helicopter or plane, the others will keep the aircraft flying if one rotor fails. This is important when many of them fly around crowded places, such as cities.
This type of propulsion would also help the plane fly more quietly. Helicopters use oversized rotors to get the most lift and keep from stalling. eVTOLs, on the other hand, would use small rotors mounted on the wings and tilt forward like a plane's propeller. So, they could spin much more slowly. With this system and electric motors, eVTOLs could be at least five times quieter than helicopters.
Even though eVTOLs seem like the easiest solution, they need a whole new infrastructure to work. "Skyports" are being planned by companies like Uber and Joby Aviation's Elevate. They will be built in cities and act as landing pads on the top level of buildings or raised parking garages. Even though they aren't very big, they can cost as much as $150 million to construct. Communication is another important but unsolved part of the plan for mass eVTOLs.
eVTOLs need to be able to talk to each other and the nearby air towers. Right now, all of this has to be done verbally by the pilot, which works well and is safe when there are only a few planes, but not when there are a lot. Digital communication allows commercial drones to share their flight plans instantly, but only to a limited degree. For air taxis to stay in business, this ability will need to grow substantially.
Even though the technology for both types of vehicles already exists, the logistics keep them from being used. Between getting them certified and building the infrastructure they'll need to work safely and seamlessly, it'll be a while before flying cars are a common way to get around.
Who invented the flying car?
Believe it or not, the concept of flying cars is almost as old as actual aircraft.
In fact, just a decade and a half after the Wright Brothers flew their plane over the plains of Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903, other aviation pioneers started working on the idea of a flying car.
Somewhere around 80 patents for different flying cars have been filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ever since with mixed success.
One of the earliest was called the Curtiss Autoplane. In 1917, Glenn Curtiss, who is sometimes called the "father of the flying car," showed off what many consider the first "true" flying car. His Autoplane was made of aluminum and had three wings that spread 40 feet long (12.2 meters). The car's motor turned a four-bladed propeller at the back of the car. The Autoplane never really flew, but it did take off and land a few times.
Another example was the Waterman Arrow plane (also called the Aerobile). Waldo Waterman made a cross between a Studebaker car and an airplane in 1937. Just like the Autoplane, it had a propeller on the back of the vehicle. The three-wheeled car was driven by a typical Studebaker engine with roughly 100 horsepower. The wings were even detachable for ease of storage. The project was killed by a lack of money.
Yet another example was the Fulton Airphibian. Developed in 1946 by Robert Edison Fulton Jr. (who made a 25,000-mile journey on a motorcycle when he was 24), he decided on a very different method of making the flying car. Instead of modifying a land vehicle to fly, he changed a plane so it could go on the road.
The plane's wings and tail could be taken off so it could be driven on the road, and the propeller could be kept in its fuselage. The entire process from aircraft to car could take as little as five minutes. The Civil Aeronautics Administration, which was the predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration, gave the green light to the Airphibian as the first flying car (FAA). It had a six-cylinder engine with 150 horsepower and could fly at 110 mph and drive at 50 mph.
Even though the design was successful, Fulton could not find a reliable backer for the Airphibian, and his dream of an airplane in every garage was never realized.
All is well and good, but as we know today, none of these early flying cars made it to mass production.
What are the most promising flying car projects?
So, with the decades of promises of flying cars perhaps poised to become a reality "very soon," what current projects are looking the most likely to succeed? While it is nye-on impossible to predict which, if any, will make it to the mass market, these are what are considered the best bets for finally making flying cars a reality.
We'll let you decide which one has the best chance.
1. The Aeromobil 3.0/4.0 are pretty promising if a little expensive
One of the most promising examples of flying cars currently in the works is, AeroMobil, a company in Slovakia. A veteran in the field, their flying car has been in the works for over 30 years. There have been four different versions of the vehicle, but it is yet to be commercially released.
The first iteration was just an idea that co-founder Stefan Klein came up with in the 1990s. It could fly and drive in theory, but it looked weird and was way too big to be used in traffic.
This led to the second version, which was built in 2010 when the company was founded. Allegedly it could travel 545 miles on the road and 435 miles in the air, and its wings could fold up so it could fit into a regular parking space.
It first took off in 2013.
But even then, the company was already working on the AeroMobil 3.0, its first official prototype. It included changes that would be needed on a mass-produced car.
This includes a strong body made of carbon fiber, advanced avionics, and steering controls that have been patented. It could go from being a car to being able to fly in less than three minutes - even with all of these improvements; the 3.0 crashed during its test flight in 2015.
Klein, the test pilot, lost control of the car, and it went into a tailspin. Later investigations of the incident revealed that the vehicle's steel frame was broken. If the company wanted to sell this car to the public, it would have to be much safer.
So they came back with a model that was almost 800 pounds heavier and had a stronger monocoque structure than the first one. It also had a better parachute system and airbags with two stages.
This latest prototype took five years, cost more than $20 million, and was tested for 10,000 hours before the company was sure it was ready. After 30 years of research and development, the government still needs to approve AeroMobil before it can be used.
The car will cost at least $1.2 million, perhaps as much as $1.6 million, and you will need a license to drive it. At that price, it's unlikely that you'll see many of these kinds of cars on the road soon. According to Aeromobil, the vehicle is intended for use by a regional ride service operator as a personal, door-to-door transportation service for trips of between 150 and 500 miles
2. The PAL-V Liberty can be yours for a few hundred thousand bucks
Another example is called the PAL-V Liberty. Developed by a Dutch company, they are currently working on the last part of the flying car's legalization process to get it to market. In 2021, it officially became the first flying car to receive official certification for road and air use in Europe and is now preparing for mass production! Although you can reserve one now, there is no news on exactly when the vehicles will be ready for delivery and use.
Looking more like a race car than an airplane, it has a narrow body and two seats in the front that are next to each other. It also resembles a very fancy and high-tech tricycle with a top-mounted helicopter-like set of blades.
Two Rotax airplane engines will give PAL-V the power it needs to fly, and the car has been designed to meet both European and American rules for the road and the air.
When on the ground, the rotor blades bend down and fold back and the vehicle's ground clearance is reduced as the three-wheeled undercarriage can drop down too. When the Liberty is in car mode, it can easily drive on regular roads and park in regular garages.
The PAL-V was initially priced at $400,000, but prices may have gone up since then. Operators will need a Gyroplane Private Pilot License, which can be obtained through a PAL-V course.
3. Terragufia's Transition is another promising example
Yet another interesting example is the Terrafugia Transition.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave the Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) airworthiness certificate to Terrafugia's hybrid plane-car in January 2021. This gave the company, effectively, the "green light" to make and sell its flying vehicle in the U.S., but it still doesn't have permission to use it on the road.
The company hopes its flying cars will be approved for on-road and in-air use by 2022. Users of the Transition will be able to switch from driving to flying in less than a minute but to operate one, and they will need both a driver's license and a sport pilot's certificate.
It has since been announced that Terrafugia had shut down its U.S. operations and relocated to China. The current status of the project is unknown.
4. Uber's Elevate project might have legs, well wings
Uber's Elevate project aims to make taxis that can fly. Joby Aviation, an aerospace start-up based in California, is making the vehicles.
The company says that its eVTOL taxis have already flown 150 miles (241 km) and that the first fleet of Uber's flying taxis has been penciled in to be up and running by 2024.
5. The AirCar is also pretty promising
Another promising flying car concept is the AirCar.
Developed by Klein Vision, its prototype for the AirCar flew between airports in Nitra and Bratislava in June 2021. The test flight was a success (in Slovakia) and consisted of flying between two airports over a distance of roughly 59 miles (96 km).
Stefan Klein, who made Aircar, says that it only takes two minutes and fifteen seconds to turn their prototype model from a car into an airplane and that it can fly up to 621 miles high (1000 km). In January 2022, the Solvak Transport Authority issued an official Certificate of Airworthiness for the vehicle, but there is no word yet on when it will be available.
6. The JetX really does look the part
One of the newest kids on the block is the Orlando-based eVTOL company JetX. According to recent reports, this company is working on a configurable flying car chassis and a modular, quiet propulsion system that can direct thrust without tilting the aircraft.
The new propulsion system lets an eVTOL plane stay level while flying both vertically and horizontally by using ventral flaps to redirect the thrust from the fans. The company says it can also be used on other types of planes.
JetX is trying to get a patent for its ventral flap design, and the company is also trying out ducted fans and fluidic propulsion units for its thrust vectoring system, which doesn't tilt.
So far, the eVTOL company has only made prototypes for its vectoring systems. They have not yet made a prototype for an airplane. The company says it will work with other aircraft designers to get the system into the eVTOL market.
7. Airbus' Vahana is an interesting concept
Last, but by no means least is the Airbus Vahana.
Not wanting to be left out of the "gold rush" to make flying cars, Airbus has been working hard to develop its flying car - the Vahana. All-electric, the Vahana will be a self-piloted eVTOL.
By making it self-piloted, the idea is to save money on hiring trained and experienced pilots to actually fly the thing once it's out there. Since autopilot software is getting pretty good at this point, it shouldn't be too hard to do this, especially for a company as big and experienced as Airbus.
This will also help with things like maintenance since the craft can fly themselves to a place where they can get repairs and updates when needed.
It looks like things are going well, as it finished its first successful test flight a few years back. This was done entirely on its own, and Airbus plans to do many more tests in the future for things like basic maneuvering.
And that, flying car dreamers, is your lot for today.
While promised and let down for many decades, we may finally be in a position to safely say that flying cars will eventually be delivered. However, "once bitten, twice shy," might be a good strategy before people get their hopes up.