We are living in the future, and it kind of sucks in a lot of ways. Our meals aren't in pill form, and nobody’s ever going to travel faster than light in space. Adding insult to injury, we’re using the marvel of the age – the internet – to argue about whether the Earth is flat or not. Anybody who was born in the years between the original Star Trek and the Next Generation has had to accept a lot of disappointments growing up into the 21st century. But one thing stings especially hard – we still don’t have flying cars. This one is by far the biggest letdown of the whole century. The meals-in-pill-form thing was pretty dumb, on reflection. We accept that there are laws of physics that won’t let us have warp speed, but flying cars? No law of nature says we can’t have those, and how cool would it be to hit a switch and fly the DeLorean over that six-mile traffic jam on the freeway? So what gives? Where are the goshdarn flying cars we’ve been paying scientists to invent for us all these years? It turns out to be complicated, but the short answer is the same as both the meal pills and the warp things: flying cars are considered both impractical from an engineering standpoint and kind of dumb as a concept.
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First things first; what do we mean when we say “flying car”? Depending on how you define it, a flying car could be anything from a helicopter to a UFO. For our purposes, we can go ahead and call a thing a flying car if it can lift off of a road and fly on its own, but the DMV will still put a sticker on it for the regular registration price. That basically means four wheels and a transmission, but with some flight mechanism to lift the thing up and over other cars to fly, ideally without a 30-foot wingspan and miles of runway like a Piper Cub.
As you may have noticed from that description of the Aerocar, the vehicle was okay in the air but barely adequate on the ground, even for the pre-interstate 1950s. This is a problem that dogged every attempt at a flying car. Every time the engineers have sat down to design a car that flies, they’ve had to choose between a roadworthy car and an airworthy plane. Because of the specific demands of flight, design teams have basically no choice but to design a safe airplane that (kind of) works like a car, even though the vehicles would spend most of their time driving on the road. The fact is that cars and flying machines are fundamentally operating in different environments, and things that make good cars tend to make bad planes, and vice-versa. Trying to square that circle can drive designers nuts as they keep trying to reconcile what are ultimately incompatible designs.
The first set of problems with building a for-real flying car is mechanical. Road vehicles are designed with engines that are just powerful enough to turn the wheels and run the generator. More power means more weight in an engine, and it means more waste heat, which calls for bigger cooling systems and lots of heavy fluids and so on. Car engines are powerful (and therefore heavy) enough to roll uphill in first gear. Building a machine that can lift the whole 3,000-pound vehicle off the road fast enough to generate lift can be done, but it takes a much more powerful engine, a lighter frame, huge lift surfaces, or all three. Any of those things get in the way of how a car, which is already a pretty tightly engineered vehicle, operates and makes it worse as a car than any other car it’s competing with. Making what amounts to an airplane operate as a car is just as hard from the opposite direction. Cars have to be cheap enough to buy and simple enough to operate without 2,000 hours of training and a radio link to ground control for emergencies. They have to be compact enough to fit into a garage or parking space at the mall, and ideally, they’ll get at least 20 mpg, unless you’re driving a Ford, in which case all bets are off. Finally, cars are expected to hit the road maybe 30 times a week and drive 10,000 miles a year without having to be downchecked and inspected every 500 hours by a professional mechanic. If you treat a flying machine the way you treat your car, it will suddenly break on you and crash for sure.
Speaking of crashing to a fiery death, planes do that a lot. So do cars. They tend to do it for different reasons though, and BOTH sets of dangers apply to cars that fly. Planes become unsafe either through fundamental design flaws, like a bad angle to the wings or wonky electrical systems or because the pilot pulled too hard on the yoke and went into a power stall. Cars usually crash because something else hit them, or because of driver error. Every single person reading this has, probably within the last 24 hours, broken the speed limit dozens of times and made a lane change without checking their blind spot. Many of you have texted while rolling a stop sign in a school zone, or worse - your dog has been a lap mate during a drive. Stop that. Flying cars have all of these safety issues, plus a few of their own. First, are the airplane-flaws. Flying cars are unproven technology, so you can expect a lot of breakdowns while the gremlins get ironed out. During that shakedown period, every minor malfunction potentially means a crash into that traffic jam you were just flying over. The car-flaws include navigation errors that can see you lost or buzzing at 100 knots into restricted air space over Area 51, minor miscalculations that in a car would mean a fender bender turning into FAA fatality investigations, and drunks slamming into other drunks at flight speed up to 12,000 feet above populated areas. Planes overcome this with pilot training and strict control rules, but most of us don't like how much the government restricts our driving as it is.
There’s also that little matter of the government — specifically, the rules for keeping most fliers alive long enough to land. In the United States, even student pilots have to pass the Jedi Trials to fly solo for the first time. Requirements to make the first solo flight include: age, health, vision, and English proficiency tests. Plus a diabetes check and maybe a prostate exam. There are also general aviation procedure tests, so you don’t accidentally say “Roger” when you mean “mayday.” Furthermore, there's specific testing on your model of plane, since they’re all as unique as a snowflake and being able to fly one doesn’t mean you can fly another. If that isn't enough, there's maneuver testing, which is like a driving test, except you’re doing it in the air and paying $100 an hour for your instructor’s time. That’s just what it takes to get a permit. The sport pilot’s license takes all that, plus 20 hours flight experience (again, $100 an hour dry, maybe $125 wet for the plane), plus various instrument certifications and such. Imagine if you got to the DMV at 15 and had to demonstrate a working knowledge of your parents’ specific model of car just to get a permit. Now imagine going through all that just to buy one specific vehicle that’s slower than a car, heavier than an airplane and probably more expensive than both put together.
And then there’s cost. As car buyers know when they get an options package, every single thing the car company adds to your vehicle raises the cost. If OnStar is going to cost you an extra $50 a month, just imagine how much an avionics package is going to run you. The average car in the United States sells new for $34,000, which is already crazy. The cheapest private planes you can buy that don’t explode when they hit a bird run above $50,000. $100,000 strikes most private pilots as a good deal. At a time when Volkswagen is facing financial ruin if they can’t get their 2019 SUVs under $34,000, tripling the cost for something that flies may not be viable.
Okay, so flying cars are impractical, expensive, dangerous and way outside of most people’s skill set. So are boats, but you’ve got one of those in your garage anyway. What about the coolness of zooming over the city of tomorrow in a swooping family saloon with aggressive styling? Wouldn’t that vision be enough to motivate someone to develop at least something we could use, wouldn’t lots of people want something like that? You bet they would, and that’s why it’s less cool than you think. Remember that, when everybody has something, it turns into the bus system. Imagine sinking a house payment into your new car, driving out to the always-congested I-405 in Los Angeles, and then lifting away from the ground like a soap bubble, And then you get stuck in another, 3-dimensional traffic jam.
As futuristic as the concept sounds, we’ve actually had something like it since the world was black and white. One early attempt was the Aerocar, of which six prototypes were built in 1949. This was the real deal. It drove fine on the road with a Lycoming O-320 air-cooled flat-four that pushed 143 hp through a three-speed manual gear shift, giving it a top speed on the road of 60 mph. The 34-foot wings were supposed to be towed behind the car on a trailer, but one man could flip them forward and lock them in place in five minutes. To connect the two-bladed propeller, you had to flip up the license plate and jam it in back as a pusher. Pop the car into neutral, and it could lift off from any reasonably straight and level stretch of highway to fly up to 300 miles at between 50 and 97 mph. The Aerocar’s service ceiling was 12,000 feet, which is as high as you’re supposed to go without oxygen.
Attempts continue, of course. Never underestimate the way the cool factor can move metal off the lot. Today, there are several "prototype" model flying cars available on something that calls itself the market but seems to be custom purchases all around. Costs vary for these models as much as you'd expect for something that flies and basically has to be made by had under skilled craftsmen's watchful eyes, but unless the team you're placekicking for just won the Super Bowl, they're all probably out of your range.
Auto culture, like the plague, is always evolving. And like the plague, there’s always a chance it might go airborne sometime in the near future and change everything. Not a fantastic chance, of course, but it’s not zero.Terrafugia has been working on this for a long time. What they have so far is called the Transition, and their hyper-futuristic website informs us it converts in under a minute, runs on normal gasoline, and it fits inside a garage. Pictures of the Transition look a little like old illustrations of a pterodactyl crawling around on a cliff, and folded wings on either side can’t be good for your blind spots, but whatever. We'd have more to tell you about this, except the company site seems to have been coded by a European art house with all kinds of features to it and we're afraid clicking a link will get us assimilated into the Borg. At least it looks cool.