Many people who are *ahem* middle-aged today, grew up with the idea that we would have flying cars by the 21st century. Like many futuristic visions, this one has been highly anticipated for years, but slow in coming true. So, how close we are? What changes would greater aerial traffic bring to our lives? And most importantly, do flying cars already exist?
At present, companies including Boeing, Uber, and Airbus have claimed to be working on their own flying car models. Moreover, a recent report from MIT Technology Review suggests that the automobile market is likely to witness the launch of around 20 flying vehicles in the next few years. From North America to Europe and Asia, there are a number of companies engaged in the creation of flying cars or smaller vertical takeoff and landing vehicle (VTOL) prototypes, and many of them are hopeful of introducing fully functional air-borne vehicles by the year 2030.
Now, all these promising developments may indicate there will be flying cars in the near future, but there is no denying that such promises and claims are made every year. Industry experts and engineers reveal that there are still many hidden challenges associated with flying cars that both automakers and authorities will need to overcome before air traffic becomes a reality.
The history of flying cars from fiction to reality
Can you guess what the dystopian future of 2017s Blade Runner 2049 and the 1960s cartoon The Jetsons have in common? The answer is flying cars. These have been an integral part of many pop culture themes and ideas. Hovercars featured in iconic films such as 1989s Back to the Future Part II and 1995s Fifth Element, and these references still have a big influence not only on audiences but also on automobile designers.
However, the first real-world attempt to create a flying car is actually much older than The Jetsons. In 1917, Glenn Hammond Curtiss, who is also considered by many to be the founder of the American aircraft industry, created ‘Autoplane’, a roadable winged automobile. This flying vehicle was able to lift off the ground during its early test runs, but it never achieved full flight. Due to the outbreak of the first world war, Curtiss abandoned the project.
In another early attempt, the U.S. Bureau of Air Commerce awarded a contract to the Pitcairn Autogiro Company, in 1935, to develop a roadable aircraft. The result was the two-seat AC-35 Autogiro flying vehicle which could take off and land in 52 m (173 ft) of room. After folding back the rotors, the pilot could switch engine power to the rear drive wheel, allowing street speeds of 25 mph (40 km/h).
Although the prototype performed well, the initial price tag of $12,500 was very far from the company's goal of an affordable $700 aircraft for the average family. Only one AC-35 was built before the beginning of World War II and the development of a practical helicopter ended the project.
Later, the engineer, inventor, and pilot Waldo Waterman, who was a former associate of Glenn Curtiss, took the engine from his Studebaker car, made some modifications, and used it in his high-winged monoplane. The two-seater Waterman Arrowbile (later changed to Aerobile) flew for the first time on February 21, 1937. It incorporated tricycle landing gear, had detachable wings, could reach speeds of 90 mph (90 km/h) on the road, and was both low cost and simple to fly. However, the production was shut down after 5 units as there was not enough demand for flying cars in the market then.
Chuck Berry's 1956 single "You Can't Catch Me," includes lyrics describing an aircar:
I bought a brand-new air-mobile
It was custom-made, 'twas a Flight De Ville
With a powerful motor and some hideaway wings
Push in on the button and you will hear her sing ...
...I put my foot in my tank and I began to roll
Moaning siren, 'twas a state patrol
So I let out my wings and then I blew my horn
Bye-bye New Jersey, I've become airborne
It turns out, the song was based on a real vehicle — Moulton Taylor’s Aerocar which took its first flight in December 1949. The Aerocar is hailed as the world’s first practical flying car, the two-seater roadable aircraft could fly at a top speed of 177 km/h (110 mph), and it had an on-road cruising speed of 96.56 km/h (60 mph) and a 300-mile range. Its wings and tail folded into a self-contained package that could be towed behind the car like a trailer, and was even approved by the Civil Aviation Authority. However, while Taylor sold a few prototypes for $15,000, he was unable to secure a deal for volume production. Only five were constructed (a sixth was built as a flying-only model).
In 1959, Ford developed a concept hovercar model named the Levicar Mach I. A full-sized prototype was displayed in the Ford Rotunda, Michigan, but it never saw production. In advertisements, the company claimed the single-seater vehicle could reach top speeds of 500 mph (800 km/h).
In the years that followed, many notable successful and unsuccessful flying car attempts took place, such as Advanced Vehicle Engineers (AVE) Mizar in 1973 (the vehicle's engineer and pilot Henry Smolinski and AVE VP Harold Blake both died during a test flight of the vehicle); Boeing's Sky Commuter concept vehicle, built in the 1980s; the Parajet Skycar, developed in 2009; the Volocopter, an all-electric air-taxi, and the Chinese EHang autonomous aerial vehicle, both currently in development; and the competition is still on.
The most ambitious flying car projects
More than 100 years have passed since the concept of flying cars was introduced. Many prototypes have come and gone, numerous flight tests have been conducted, but the wait for a commercially viable flying car is not over yet. However, some recent experiments, initiatives, and demonstrations indicate that we are closer than ever to witnessing a world with flying cars around:
- AeroMobil, a flying car manufacturer from Slovakia, conducted successful flight tests of their roadable aircraft AeroMobil 4.0 in September 2020. The company claims that their flying vehicles will be available for commercial sale in 2023, and they also have plans to launch a 4-seater flying car in 2025.
However, 4.0 is not the only flying vehicle from AeroMobil. Previously, the company had introduced model 3.0 in 2014 which was improved further to add more safety features after it met with an unfortunate test flight accident in 2015. The improved version can convert from a road car to aircraft in 3 minutes. Later, AeroMobil also revealed that its vehicle will be sold at a price ranging from $1.2 and $1.6 million (once approved by the local and international transport authorities).
- Uber's Elevate project aims to introduce flying taxis. The vehicles are being developed with Joby Aviation, a California-based aerospace startup. The company claims that it has already completed a flight distance of 150 miles with eVTOL taxis and the first fleet of Uber’s flying taxis will be operational by 2024.
- In June 2021, Klein Vision's flying car prototype, the AirCar, successfully completed an intercity test flight between Nitra and Bratislava airports (in Slovakia). The airports are located at a distance of about 59 miles (96 km) apart. Creator of Aircar, Stefan Klein claims that their prototype model only takes two minutes and 15 seconds to convert from a car into an aircraft and it can fly at heights of up to 621 miles (1000 km).
- Airbus began the Vahana project in 2016 to develop an urban air mobility solution that could replace cars and trains for short-distance travel. Vahana was aimed to function as a personal VTOL and its first prototype Alpha One was introduced in 2017’s Paris Air Show. In 2019, Alpha Two was introduced, which flew at a speed of 105.6 mph (170 km/h) during one of its test flights. The Vahana project came to an end in December 2019, after conducting 138 test flights, during which the VTOLs from Airbus managed to fly more than 560 mi (900 km).
- Turkish UAV manufacturer Baykar is developing the Cezeri, an autonomous quadcopter that can fly at a cruising speed of 62 mph (100 km/h). This single-seater flying vehicle looks futuristic and runs on rechargeable batteries. Cezeri completed its first test flight in September 2020, and the company is promoting it as a green urban air mobility solution for the near future.
- In January 2021, Terrafugia’s plane-car hybrid Transition received the Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) airworthiness certificate from the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). Now the company can manufacture and sell their flying vehicle in the US, although they still haven't received permission for roadside use of the vehicles. The company hopes that by 2022 their flying cars will be certified both on-road and airborne operations. Users will be able to convert the vehicle from driving to flying in less than a minute, but will need both a driver's license and a sport pilot's certificate to operate one.
Recently, bills were introduced in both the US Senate and the House of Representatives to develop a nationwide strategy for advanced air mobility (AAM), The legislation calls the US Department of Transportation to come up with recommendations, guidelines, and policies required for effective utilization of air mobility technologies such as eVTOLs in the future.
As a part of the nationwide Advanced Air Mobility campaign, NASA is also flight testing the eVTOLs in conjunction with Joby.
So then what prevents flying cars from being a reality?
The process of creating a commercially viable flying car is both expensive and time-consuming. On top of this, the makers face a number of serious legal and regulatory hurdles. Even if a working and commercially viable roadable aircraft were developed, in order to put a fleet of airborne vehicles into operation, infrastructure to support this would also be needed. Everything from landing sites, storage sites, and fueling stations to road laws, insurance, and licensing still needs to be worked out.
There are many important factors that still need to be resolved completely so that flying cars could exist in the real world:
Technical challenges with production
A flying car is a very complex piece of technology, and current automobile production lines are not suited for the mass production of a lightweight roadable aircraft. New assembly lines and advanced machines are required for achieving efficient flying car production levels, but not many automobile manufacturers are willing or ready for this drastic change.
However, some, like René Landry, aviation systems researcher at ETS, have hailed the challenge as “an opportunity to rework an industry that’s starting to look a bit crusty. It’s time to rethink a lot about aviation.”
Moreover, a flying car is a seemingly impossible blend of two different technologies, while a car stays on the road because its weight is distributed in a manner so that it generates a downward force, an aircraft, on the other side will never work with such an arrangement. So while building a flying car, designers and engineers are required to come up with a machine that could quickly adjust both its structure and weight, according to the consumer’s preferred mode of transport.
Due to such complications, a lot of time and investments are required for producing a feasible flying car model. One example of this is Klein Vision’s AirCar, which went for its first flight in 2013, almost 23 years after Stefan Klein first designed the concept.
Lack of infrastructure
Major players like Uber, Hyundai, and Airbus are more focused on the idea of eVTOL flying taxis, rather than flying cars, because the current infrastructure can not support flying vehicles that require runways or come with big foldable side wings. Whereas vertical take-off and landing vehicles fit better in the current settings because not only can they be designed to land on existing helicopter pads, but these drone-like vehicles are also able to land, pick, and drop off passengers quickly in crowded cities, so could be used by commuters.
However, landing stations and communication units that could support a future eVTOL taxi fleet can only be achieved with infrastructure investments worth billions of dollars. Companies like Joby Aviation believe that the cost is reasonable for a sustainable and long-term urban air mobility solution. The company is already working on designs for skyports, and rooftop-based landing and takeoff infrastructure for Uber’s flying taxis.
Regulation, Certifications, and Policies
How would you feel if you own a fully functional flying car but could not drive it? This is the case with most of the flying car models which have successfully conducted flight tests but are waiting for approval from authorities. Flying cars will require a host of new regulations, laws, policies, air traffic control systems, and guidelines to ensure the safety of everyone, whether they are in the sky or on the ground.
However, the new bills presented in the US Congress concerning AAM have given hopes that soon the government might take some important decisions addressing these issues.
Aerospace experts believe that modern electric batteries are not powerful enough to offer long-duration electric air taxi travel. Even NASA’s most advanced experimental electric plane only has a range of up to 100 miles (160 km) and this is no air taxi in terms of wingspan and weight. Therefore, it would be a challenging task for companies to come up with efficient power supply systems for their eVTOLs.
Another question is whether flying car technology can be made affordable for the average person? Flying cars are basically advanced aircraft, and even the cheapest private aircraft in the world costs around $1.96 million, with hefty maintenance fees on top. This is why many companies are focusing on developing craft as fleet air taxis, rather than private vehicles.
Ashley Andrew, MD, Hyundai Motors UK has pointed out that, “It's easy to say we'll all be traveling in autonomous pods and flying through our cities in the future — it's quite another thing making it happen,”
Modern-day mini helicopters and VTOLs also create a level of noise that is unacceptable for an urban environment. Therefore, engineers will also need to design flying vehicles with highly reduced noise signatures otherwise, they may never become a mainstream mode of transport. This is tricky but not impossible. Brain German, an associate professor at the Georgia University of Technology explains that by making changes to the rotor blade design and implementing a distributed rotor system in aircraft, noise levels can be significantly reduced.
A joint study conducted by Aerospace Industries Association and Deloitte Insights in January 2021 reveals that, by 2035, the air mobility market might be worth $115 billion (0.5% of US GDP). Another study, from Morgan Stanley, predicts that the urban air mobility market may cross the mark of $1 trillion by 2040. All these figures, along with the recent developments in the flying vehicle industry, raise hopes that sooner or later the myriad challenges associated with airborne cars would be resolved, and we will finally witness the era of the flying car.