One of the most common features of our imagined future has always been the flying car. The 21st century was meant to have skyways instead of highways, with vehicles buzzing overhead, weaving through skyscrapers and gliding into skyports.
Take heart. Although we’re a little behind schedule, there are a number of companies out there seriously working to bring flying cars to market in the next few years.
Just don’t expect instant transformation into a Jetsons world. Most manufacturers think the initial market will be in premium leisure travel. Price estimates for first editions range from $250,000 to $500,000 per vehicle. So for most people, flying to work as a daily commute will have to wait. Owning a first generation flying car will most likely look like this:
You live White Plains, New York, and decide to pop over to Cape Cod for the night. You jump in your flying car — which sits in your garage — and drive 10 miles to the Westchester County airport. With a push of a button, wings unfold and you speed down the runway, and now you’re airborne. After a breathtaking two-hour flight, you land at Provincetown Municipal Airport; push another button, the wings fold in, and you’re ready to drive to town.
There are no hangar fees to pay and no hassles arranging a car at the other end (there are rarely rental car agents at these small general aviation airports). The flying range for these models averages about 430 miles (693 km).
“The real value proposition is at your destination — unless the airport itself is your ultimate destination,” which it almost certainly is not, said Richard Gersh, VP of business development for American flying car firm Terrafugia. Probably you’re disappointed about the airport in this scenario. Unfortunately, most of the prototypes need a short runway and aren’t really intended for urban use at the outset (it’s likely cities wouldn’t allow them, anyway). The most promising contenders in this category are the Transition by Massachusetts-based Terrafugia and German manufacturer Carplane.
AeroMobil 3.0 from Slovakia, has a model that can takeoff and land on grass, which offers more flexibility. Unfortunately, it suffered an accident on May 8 during a test flight with inventor Stefan Klein on board, according to Slovak media SME. The emergency parachute deployed successfully and Klein escaped with no injuries, but the prototype suffered damaged.
A Dutch model called PAL-V ONE has an exciting hybrid gyroplane and 3-wheel car that handles like a motorcycle; it has a propeller on top instead of fixed wings like the others, but also needs a short runway. It’s the safest model out there because the rotor keeps rotating even without power, meaning it can still be steered. “Even if the engine fails, you make a normal soft landing,” said manufacturer in a message.
Cutting the airport out of the equation requires vertical takeoff and landing, or VTOL. It’s a lot more expensive and difficult to achieve, partially because if you really want to take off and land from your house, your flying car can’t sound like a helicopter.
It would be like “sandblasting the neighbor’s car while landing on a column of noise on the front lawn,” said Carplane program manager John Brown, in an email from Germany. So the manufacturers in this category — California-based Moller International, which makes Skycar, and Lilium Aviation in Germany — put the bulk of their engineering efforts into reducing the decibels versus creating good roadsters, and they’re making progress.
“The Lilium Jet is comparable to a car passing at 50 mph during vertical takeoff. In cruising mode it is inaudible from the ground,” said Lilium co-founder Sebastian Born via email. But given there are laws about when you can use your lawnmower, you’ll probably still have to drive to your nearest vertiport (what helicopters use) for takeoff. Just that there can be a lot more vertiports than airports.
Apart from private use, there’s a world of institutional applications imagined for flying cars that could broaden the market and speed up what might be a slow adoption process. These include rapid response in disaster zones, ambulance services, border control, package delivery, air taxis, and a range of military uses.
A Time That’s Come?
Over the last 100 years of tinkering and dreaming there have been no less than 2,400 flying car designs, at least 300 of which have taken flight, according to Carplane’s website.
The first patent for a flying car was issued in Paris in 1903, and the first flight, albeit a very short one, was Glenn Curtiss’s Autoplane in 1919. Many of the early models were successful in terms of engineering, but never got off the ground (pun intended) because they lacked financing.
In 1948, the Convair 118—essentially a family sedan with detachable airplane parts—had a spectacular failure when test pilot Reuben Snodgrass mistakenly read the car gas gauge instead of the plane’s and ran out of fuel midair. He survived the emergency landing, but the Convair 118 did not. A second prototype was created out of the wreckage, but by then, enthusiasm for the project had waned.
Perhaps today, at a time when even space tourism seems viable and highways choked with traffic make clear the appeal of personal air travel, the market may be ready for mass production. Time will soon tell, but there are still some big hurdles to get by first.
Terrafugia’s Transition appears to be leading the pack in the race to market but has one profound sticking point: red tape. The goal is to certify as a Light Sports Aircraft (LSA), but that requires the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to agree to raise the maximum takeoff from 1,320 pounds to 1,800 pounds. The extra weight is to accommodate all the features a car needs that planes normally don’t—things like airbags, seatbelts, and steering and suspension.
Terrafugia already received a 100-pound exemption in 2010, and hoped to be certified and selling units by 2011. But the company couldn’t make it work with only 100 pounds extra so now its asking for 380 pounds more. The fundamental struggle isn’t just Terrafugia’s, it’s inherent to the flying car concept: Airplanes need to be as light as possible; for cars, in many ways, the heavier the better.
The benefit of being classified as an LSA, is that it only requires a sport pilot license rather than a more difficult and costly private pilot license. For example, the former requires 20 hours of flight time versus 40 hours to become a private pilot. Both the LSA and sport pilot categories were newly created in 2004.
Paul Moller, creator of Skycar, doesn’t think trying to certify as an LSA is the way to go because of the weight issue. “One ends up with a poor airplane (slow) and a poor car (dangerously light and spartan),” he said.
So he developed Skycar as a plane first and foremost, and gave it only three wheels not four for ground travel. This way it only needs to meet the road safety standards for a motorcycle, not a car. Lilium Jet also went the three-wheeled route for the same reason.
Despite the challenges, Terrafugia feels confident the FAA will approve its request for more weight. But it’s still far from clear which way the FAA will go. “Even pro-flying-car lobbyists doubt that an exemption of such magnitude will be granted by the FAA,” said Carplane program manager John Brown, via email from Germany.
“Certification should be a matter of planning, not exemptions,” added Brown. Ed de Reyes, a security expert in aircraft certification who works closely with Skycar as a test pilot and consultant, and is also helping Terrafugia with its process, agrees it’s an uphill battle, but says it’s not a lost cause.
“I think their chances are probably as good as anybody else’s,” said de Reyes. The truth is, no flying car model has been “certificated” to fly in the United States. So if the FAA proves willing to essentially accept a new class of “roadable airplane,” it could open the door to the rest of the field.
If, however, the FAA pushes it back to Terrafugia to figure out how to drop weight while still meeting road safety standards, it will be another expensive setback for Terrafugia and the whole industry, given that cost has been a major barrier to entry for 100 years.
Cost of Entry
According to de Reyes, it costs roughly $50 million for a new plane to complete the FAA’s certification process, by the time you have the right data systems, have paid for engineers to analyze the data, have performed the myriad of flight tests, and so on. It can be less for LSAs, but any new company trying to get up to speed will spend quite a bit of money, he said.
Financing has certainly been a major obstacle for most flying car startups. Moller has been working on a variety of innovative vertical lift vehicles for over 30 years. He has two Skycar models — the 2-seater Skycar 200 and the 4-seater Skycar 400 — and a low-flying saucer-shaped utility vehicle called Neuera (pronounced “new era”).
Moller International is a publicly traded company, into which Moller has poured a lot of his own funds over the years to keep afloat, to the extent that he filed for personal Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. The industry is a tough sell to investors: Vast funds are needed over a long development period for a product with an unproven demand, beholden to a regulatory process with no rulebook, and with an unpredictable selling price since the ultimate cost will have to be amortized over a low number of units at first.
The Skycar is expected to cost about $500,000 at rollout, then drop to maybe half of that after the first thousand units are sold. Thinking big, Moller said by the time production hits 200,000 units per year, the price could get down to a reasonable $50,000.
So what the flying car industry needs isn’t so much venture capitalists, who can’t expect a quick return on investment, but more Elon Musks and Jeff Bezoses, said de Reyes, though he laments that private space flight seems to have more appeal for these one-upmanship types, who seem to be thinking: “I don’t want to be the guy with the flying car; I want to be the guy with my own secure spaceship.”
So are flying cars for real this time around? There’s no doubt that this set of entrepreneurs is banking on it and won’t give up easily. Most are already planning next generation prototypes to bring us closer to that sci-fi future: they’ll be battery-powered, self-flying or nearly so, and there will be room for the whole family.
There are other positive signs, too. In Europe, Carplane and AeroMobil have support from the EU. In the United States, even the defense research agency, DARPA, wants to develop a ground vehicle that can transform into a VTOL air vehicle, which could create opportunities for collaboration and innovation.
De Reyes says the FAA is changing too. While public safety is still their first priority, he sees it’s not their only priority. “The FAA has shifted a lot of their focus to how to foster innovation without making the rules so prohibitive that you put a company out of business.” The only remaining question is if there’s true market demand. There’s definitely market demand in our collective imaginations, so if the price is right, we’ll likely bite.