Flying Cars: Past, Present and Future
During the 1960s, the popular cartoon “The Jetsons” envisioned a future in which flying cars whizzed merrily about, ferrying passengers to and from various space-age buildings. By the time the show debuted, numerous attempts at developing a flying car had already been made. As evidenced by a patent that was filed by Toyota in March 2014, the dream persists. The question remains, however; will it ever actually happen?
Early Attempts at Developing a Flying Car
For nearly as long as automobiles have existed, people have been working on ways to take them to the sky. Some of the most memorable attempts include:
In 1917, Glenn Curtiss, also known as “The Father of the Flying Car,” made the first-ever attempt at developing one in earnest. Thus, the Curtiss Autoplane was constructed, fashioned out of lightweight aluminum and featuring three wings that spanned 40 feet. Pushed by a four-blade propeller at the rear, the Autoplane was capable of lifting briefly off the ground although, sadly, it never actually flew. Despite all the fanfare enjoyed at the Pan-American Aeronautic Exposition in New York in February 1917, plans for this flying car fizzled when the U.S. entered World War I.
Known also as the Waterman Arrowbile, this 1937 attempt was made by Waldo Waterman and consisted of a hybrid Studebaker aircraft with three wheels. It featured a 100-horsepower engine, was tailless and drove on three wheels. It actually flew well—and safely, at that—but only five were ever produced, and a lack of public interest put an end to the project.
With this 1946 attempt, inventor Robert Fulton attempted to adapt a plane for the road. The Airphibian featured a removable tail and removable wings, and its propeller could be stored in the fuselage. Incredibly, the process of converting it from a plane to car took only five minutes. With its 150-horsepower, six-cylinder engine, it was capable of flying 120 miles per hour and driving 50 miles per hour. To Fulton’s credit, his invention was the first to be certified by the Civil Aeronautics Administration—the precursor to the FAA. However, he was unable to get financial backing and had to abandon the project.
Just one year after the Airphibian, Consolidated-Vultee developed the ConvAirCar, which was a two-door sedan with a detachable airplane unit. On the road, the ConvAirCar boasted driving gas mileage of 45 miles per gallon. The first few test flights went okay, as the vehicle was capable of up to one hour of flight at a time. During its third test flight, however, it crashed. The accident put an end to the project.
Perhaps the most intriguing and controversial attempt at developing a flying car was the AvroCar, which was developed on behalf of the U.S. military through the combined efforts of Canada and Britain. Officially known as the Avro Canada VZ-9 Avrocar, its development was prompted by the dawning of the Cold War era. Perhaps the most unique thing about the Avrocar was that it looked incredibly like a flying saucer or UFO. The vehicle used the Coanda effect to generate thrust and lift from the “turborotor,” which blew exhaust out of the rim. The project kept being diminished further and further until it was ultimately abandoned entirely.
Flying Car Prototypes That Could Work
Despite the failed attempts that are highlighted above, we could very well see flying cars in the sky at some point in the future. Currently, several working prototypes are out there. The most prominent examples include:
Moller International Flying Vehicles
Paul Moller founded Moller International with the primary goal of developing a personally affordable vertical takeoff and landing, or VTOL, vehicle. The company’s Skycar takes off and lands like a helicopter. The original Skycar, the Skycar 200, was designed with military applications in mind. Several iterations followed, with the Skycar 400 representing the most recent attempt. This vehicle has automated flight controls and includes ducted fans that deflect air vertically for takeoff and horizontally for forward flight. Eight Rotapower engines provide power, and they operate on any type of fuel. Only hover tests were completed, and it appears the Skycar project has been abandoned due to a lack of funding. The company is now focusing on the Neuera, which hovers a little off the ground without actually taking flight.
Terrafugia is a big name in the world of flying cars. It classifies its Transition model as a “roadable aircraft.” The vehicle, which made its public debut at AirVenture Oshkosh in July 2010, has folding wings. Its first production prototype flight occurred on March 23, 2012, and it appeared at the New York International Auto Show the following month. The company has stated that first deliveries of the vehicle will occur sometime between 2015 and 2017.
The successor to the Transition, the TF-X, is described by its manufacturer as a plug-in hybrid tilt-rotor vehicle, and it will be the first fully autonomous flying car. Expected to hit the market in 2021, it offers a 500-mile flying range, and its batteries can be recharged by its engine. It features a 300 BHP gas engine, electric motors, and has a propeller at the end of each wing.
The TF-X takes off vertically and seats up to four people. Incredibly, it should also be capable of automatically avoiding bad weather, restricted airspace, and other air traffic. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has also approved the TF-X for test flights, meaning that the dream of flying cars is one step closer.
Produced by Slovakian company AeroMobil, the AeroMobil 3.0 is billed as an airplane that can drive. Lightweight and featuring collapsible wings, it flew a 12-mile circle at more than 800 feet for its initial flight and has since successfully flown more than 40 times. The AeroMobil 3.0 made its public debut at the Pioneers Festival in Vienna in October 2014. It boasts Garmin avionics and includes a ballistic parachute safety system. No official word has been given about when it will be ready for production.
Is a Future Filled with Flying Cars Really Possible?
As exciting as these prototypes may be, we still have a long way to go before we zip through the skies like the Jetsons. Major changes to infrastructure, including new runways, landing spaces, and air traffic control changes will be needed to make flying cars feasible for everyday use. Vehicle safety standards also pose a problem, as aircrafts need to be lightweight to fly, but on the road vehicles must be sturdy enough to protect passengers. And, aside from proper licensing, there’s the issue of teaching people how to fly.
What do you think about the idea of flying cars?
Do you think you’ll see them widely used during your lifetime?
In your opinion, which current issues would they solve? What kinds of issues might they cause?