The term "flying car" brings to mind images from "The Jetsons" and "Blade Runner," where the skies are crowded with vehicles and the average driver spends more time aloft than on the ground.
That reality remains in the distant future, but it's hardly unimaginable. Real flying cars should be on the market in the next few years, but the first wave will be designed for pilots who sometimes want to drive -- not ordinary drivers who want to fly above traffic.
The Driving Plane
Leading the way is Terrafugia, founded in 2006 by five MIT-trained engineers, all of them pilots. In an interview, co-founder and CEO Carl Dietrich said they started off by identifying the biggest problems with flying as a hobby.
They came up with four, he said:
- Small aircraft can't fly in bad weather. For multi-day trips, that means taking the risk that you may not be able to get home if a storm crops up.
- It takes a lot of money to own a plane. Beyond the purchase price, there's jet fuel and the cost of safely storing the plane at an airport.
- It can take awhile to travel from one's home to the airport. That's time when you can't be in the air.
- Options for ground transportation tend to be limited or non-existent at the small airports used by private aircraft, so once you land somewhere, it's hard to keep going on the ground.
These are all serious limits to the practicality and enjoyment of flying as a hobby. And they're solved by Terrafugia's first model, the Transition.
The Transition is a small aircraft whose wings can fold up so it can drive on the road. Its price is comparable to that of other small planes, but Dietrich says the cost of ownership will be significantly reduced. It uses automotive gasoline, so more expensive aviation fuel isn't necessary.
It's efficient: Flying at 100 mph, it gets an outstanding 20 miles per gallon. Plenty of cars get the same rate at significantly lower speeds. Terrafugia says that on the ground, the Transition gets 35 mpg, also impressive.
With the wings folded, it can fit in the average garage, so there's no more need to pay to keep it at an airport. The ground transportation problem is solved, since you just drive it home after landing. If the weather's bad, you don't have to fly. Just drive instead.
Terrafugia isn't the only company in this market, and there's more than one way to get a car in the air.
The Flying Motorcycle
Dutch company PAL-V was founded in 2001. Unlike the Transition, the three-wheeled PAL-V ONE is more motorcycle than car, and more helicopter than plane. But it still drives and flies.
It's actually a gyrocopter (also called an autogyro), which uses an engine-powered propeller to create thrust and an unpowered rotor to create lift.
Slower than a helicopter, it's also simpler to fly. PAL-V CEO Robert Dingemanse said it's easy to learn to use, and there's no real risk of stalling.
Unlike the Transition, the PAL-V ONE can avoid airports altogether, thanks to short takeoff and landing capability. It flies at a max speed of 112 mph and stays below 4,000 feet, out of commercial airspace.
Despite their different designs, the Transition and the PAL-V ONE have a lot in common in how they will be used.
The PAL-V One started "more as a driving airplane than flying car," Dingemanse said, and the key customer is the person who already knows how to fly. The vehicle will remain a "very small part of the car market for a long time," Dingemanse said.
Terrafugia's Dietrich agreed that the Transition will be used more as a driving plane than a flying car, but said he sees a market beyond existing pilots.
It is "mostly for pilots today," he said, but it's an obvious way to bring more people into aviation. The company has taken over 100 deposits for the Transition, each for $10,000. Of those customers, a quarter are not pilots.
Both Terrafugia and PAL-V ONE have solved the basic technological challenges of building a vehicle that drives and flies capably, as their testing proves.
But there's a large gap between developing that technology and bringing it to market, especially in the U.S. and Europe, where the auto and aviation industries are carefully and heavily regulated.
Although both vehicles can fly, each has several more years of testing and development before any customers can take them for a spin.
The current transition is a second generation prototype, and is being used for flight testing. The third generation will be used for crash testing, and misuse testing (like driving on cobblestones). The Terrafugia will make tweaks based on the results, build a conforming prototype, and repeat the initial flight testing. That should all be done in two and a half to three years, Dietrich said. All told, the process will have taken a decade.
Both are serious projects that have already well on their way to certification. Terrafugia has received a key weight exemption from the FAA, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration allowed it to bypass a few regulations that would delay development but not impact safety.
The PAL-V, which is backed partly by the Dutch government, is classified as a motorbike, not a car. That gives the company "much more freedom in design," Dingemanse said, partly because European auto safety standards are especially strict.
Filling The Skies
If these vehicles are really designed to make pilots' lives easier, when will we get to a point where the average driver gets to fly?
We're nowhere near life in "The Jetsons" or "Blade Runner," but we're headed in the right direction. Terrafugia and PAL-V ONE are serious companies with products we expect to see make it to market, if in limited numbers.
From there, it's a question of improving the technology (largely to make flying easier than it is now), ramping up production, getting people interested, updating regulations, and building infrastructure.
That's a lot of work, but it's been done before. The auto and aviation industries were both in their infancy a century ago. Now we have millions of cars on the road and 30,000 daily flights in the U.S.
Terrafugia is already working on a second model, the TF-X, which will take off and land vertically, and fly at 200 mph. Dietrich says customers could learn to operate it in just five hours, though regulatory changes will be needed to make it available.
Some technologies and capabilities that autonomous flying cars will depend on are included in the Next Generation Air Transportation System, which is being slowly implemented by the FAA, Dingemanse explained.
"The enabling systems and things of that nature are being put into place today, to lay this groundwork for this future of the types of flying cars that people have dreamed about for a century," he said. "We're now seeing, okay, there is a path."