The dream of flying cars has long been a staple in the world of geekery, emphasized in the 1980s by the Back to the Future series, and solidified as a dream through countless prototypes and inventive hopefuls. Unfortunately, that dream has yet to become a reality.
I remember seeing demonstrations of what could be classified as flying cars, planes that fold their wings in order to fit into a standard single-car garage, vehicles marketed towards the very rich that don’t do very well on the road and only fly a very limited distance, and other crazy concepts that never made it past the drawing board.
More recently, at the New York Auto Show, a flying car design was unveiled that promises a truly street-capable vehicle with flying capabilities priced at around $279,000. This vehicle, named the Transition by its manufacturer, Terrafugia, has already been pre-ordered by over 100 individuals that are sure to enjoy beating the morning commute.
Every time I get on a bend about how great something would be if it were only real, someone (likely in the comments below) will point out exactly why it wouldn’t be such a grand idea. After all, the reason many of our dreams never reach realization in our lifetimes is because it would jar our way of living so quickly, it would be almost impossible for folks to adapt.
Governments would have a cow trying to regulate around a situation where everyone and anyone could fly a vehicle they keep in their garage. Just think about the Internet. It took them a while, but governments are doing their best to regulate it to the point where we can’t say or do anything without risking being taken to court or losing our domain. SOPA anyone?
Imagine truly having flying cars sold at auto dealerships, and flyable by everyday folks on the road. How deadly would a fender bender become? Could you imagine someone cutting you off as you headed to work that day? What about the occasional nutter that decides to take a dive into the roof of your home?
All of these considerations have to be made, and at the very least, we should expect heavy licensing and regulation of any vehicle capable of lifting off the ground.
Flying is also not as easy as it looks. As any pilot would tell you, it’s actually one of the more difficult things someone can do. As many times as you hear about modern aircraft practically flying themselves, that isn’t a feasible solution for flying vehicles just yet. We can’t even get regular cars to drive themselves correctly, though we’re getting pretty close thanks to Google.
Here’s the problem, we’re not there yet and we won’t be anytime soon. Fact is, as long as these flying car prototypes require to be in constant motion to stay aloft, you’ll never see something like this work for the masses. So many things can go wrong, and so little of our current technology is truly capable of dealing with it.
Even with the Transition, 20 hours of flight time is required to receive the proper licensing to pilot it. Takeoff and landing also can’t happen on your standard roadway, as you’re still required to use an airport’s facilities to takeoff and land.
After all, as Terrafugia states on its official site, “The Transition isn’t designed to replace anyone’s car, but it could replace your airplane.”
What is Possible
The Transition is a remarkable design, which overcomes some of the obstacles previous attempts at flying automobiles ran into. For example: a full vehicle parachute provides an excellent boost to safety, especially if something goes wrong.
The vehicle itself is fitted with a safety cage, crumple zone, and airbags which allows it to meet at least some of today’s safety standards for automobiles.
The wings fold nicely, creating a structure that is only 2m x 2.3m x 6m and can fit in a garage.
The Transition also burns regular automotive gasoline from a 23 gallon tank. This is a significant cost savings over many other commercially-available aircraft. In fact, both air and road use of the Transition draw from the same tank.
Small aircraft such as personal sport vehicles don’t travel in the same commercial airspace as the larger planes do, and as such, this is a mode of transportation that is available to pilots looking to head out of town or enjoy a flight during the day without rigorous schedule requirements or the hassle of congested airspace. You still have to file a flight plan and perform other necessary functions, if required by your local laws.
While I’m excited to see cheaper planes become available, and the potential of a vehicle that can land at an airport and drive out without the need of a secondary vehicle on standby, I’m not overly excited about seeing some of my fellow drivers in control of a vehicle that can spin out of control in additional directions.
There are a surprising number of potential concepts hitting the public space recently. Chris Pirillo, the founder of LockerGnome, brought the Pal-V to my attention. Pal-V is a mix between a car and a helicopter that has a remarkably clever design. Boasting 28 MPG on the street and over 9 GPH in the air, the Pal-V is slightly more fuel efficient than the Transition. Below is a video of the first test flight.
Perhaps in another several decades artificial intelligence will become powerful enough to safeguard us from being ourselves. Perhaps avionics will advance to the point where being stuck in a mid-flight traffic jam won’t cause you to risk your very life. Until then, the dream of piloting your car to get around the commute of daily traffic will remain just that, a dream.