Science fiction has served as a looking glass into the future for many advances we eventually came to feel we couldn't live without. Its conceived devices that labor on our behalf without requiring our attention, imagined the ability to see and hear one another instantaneously over great distances and predicted the reality that we'd be able to make journeys that once took weeks or even months in mere hours.
One technological perk where the present has yet to catch up with the future sci-fi has painted for us, however, is the elusive, personal flying car.
Spend just a little time as a daily car commuter in a major city, or a road warrior business traveler who spends too much time stuck in airports, and it's easy to understand the allure of a car that could levitate above the delays and frustrations of traveling with the jostling masses. Or a personal plane that lets you kiss those airport security hassles goodbye as you depart for your next vacation.
So what's the holdup? Why can't ordinary people fly themselves on short hops between cities, using the large network of hardly used small airports around the country? It's not such a far-fetched idea: In fact, there are more than 2,800 small airports around the United States, and they're vastly underused [source: Frank].
For a while, NASA even had a research program to figure out how to make it super-easy for ordinary folks to use this little-known network by flying on it themselves. But one of the key elements would be small, relatively affordable planes that were as easy to operate as cars [source: NASA].
It just so happens that more than a few companies are working on these dual-use vehicles. Whether you call them flying cars, or roadable aircraft, it's an idea that refuses to stay grounded.
Flying cars and their intrepid inventors have actually been with us for decades, but for many reasons, they've always seemed to sputter and stall before reaching commercial success.
But design advances, lightweight materials, electronic flying aids and new government rules could make this the decade that flying cars finally take off in the marketplace. This article will look at five contemporary prototypes of flying cars (in no particular order) and offer some estimate of when they might be buzzing treetops near you.
What if your ride to the airport was also your ride at the airport? Read the next page for our first prototype that offers door-to-runway service.
One pretty obvious dilemma of driving down the highway in a craft that needs to take to the air is, "What do you do with the wings?"
If you're the maker of the Terrafugia Transition, the answer is, "You fold them." The Transition, a four-wheel, canard-bearing vehicle, features wings that fold twice -- once at the root, where the wings meet the fuselage, and again mid-wing. Its engine runs on unleaded pump gasoline and switches power from the wheels to the rear prop when it's time to take to the sky.
Terrafugia calls it a "roadable aircraft," noting that you do need a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sport license (or higher) to fly it. But a driver's license will suffice just for driving to and from the airport. By the way, if you're thinking of making dramatic "Back to the Future" style take-offs and landings to the amazement of land-bound motorists -- forget about it. Legally, you can only take off and land from an airport or private airstrip.
The makers of the Transition, many of them graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, acknowledge the dangers, failures and frustrations that have plagued past inventors of roadworthy airplanes. The company even poses the question on its Web site, "Why will the Transition be any different?" The answer: "The Transition has the advantage of modern engines, composite materials, and computer-based avionics. Even more important is the approach being taken by Terrafugia to design a vehicle for pilots that brings additional ground capability to an airplane instead of attempting to make a car fly."
The Transition has driven and flown successfully in a number of tests. As of early 2010, Terrafugia estimated it would make its first customer delivery of a working, flying Transition in 2011.
In the event of an air emergency, you might strap on a parachute -- if you were fortunate to have one on-board. To find out about the flying car that uses a parachute, read the next page.
The Skycar flying car proves that these types of vehicles need not be terribly complicated to work.
Billed as "the world's first bio-fuelled flying car," the Skycar consists of an engine and a massive, five-bladed propeller mounted to the rear of a sparse, dune buggy-like car. Providing lift to the entire works is a giant fabric wing that works like a parasail. Skycar calls it a "parafoil" since it has properties both of a parachute and an airfoil or wing.
Skycar gained international attention in 2009 when it flew and drove from London to Tomboctou (Timbuktu), Mali, in Africa.
When not in flight mode, the Skycar's parasail wing and suspension lines fold up and pack away into the car's trunk. The current version claims to be both off-road and on-road capable, but you probably shouldn't expect too-comfy a ride in Skycar's open-cage design and sparsely appointed interior.
The makers of Skycar have released photographs of a sleeker, next-generation version that sports body cladding somewhat evocative of a Lamborghini. This "road sport" model "could be available from 2010 onwards," according to the company.
Some people think the U.S. government is full of humorless, secretive bureaucrats. But a government program having to do with re-configurable vehicles shows that there's "more than meets the eye," even with federal workers. Find out more on the next page.
No, we're not Decepticon-ning you, the U.S. government is actually working on something called Project Transformer, or TX, for short. Specifically, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is investigating how feasible it would be to build vehicles that could perform scouting or other duties on land, then transform to evacuate the area when done -- or when action on the ground got too hot.
As you may recall, DARPA's predecessor organization a few decades ago fronted the cash to develop the technology that eventually became today's Internet. Could research in the flying cars arena signal a similar revolution-in-the-works for transportation?
DARPA has no definitive favorite design yet, and will likely take a while to sift through all the proposals it receives. Officials envision something that might have folding wings and directed, ducted fan engines to allow vertical takeoffs and landings.
If you're interested in making a proposal, keep in mind DARPA is looking to demonstrate "A tactical four-person vehicle that can drive or fly on command." Other requirements:
- It would be manually driven on the ground like an SUV
- It rapidly reconfigures between ground and flight mode
- It can perform Vertical Takeoff and Landings (VTOL)
- It has a cruise speed equal to a light aircraft
- No tricky piloting skills needed -- automatic takeoff and landing flight control
What if you could experience flying in the same way it feels to ride a motorcycle or personal watercraft -- fast, fun and with the wind in your face? Go to the next page to find out how one company is aiming to make it happen.
So technically, the Icon A5 personal amphibious plane is not a flying car. But you could consider it, technically, to be a "roadable" aircraft.
That's because the A5's folding wings make it compact enough to fit on a trailer that you could tow with your truck or SUV. Icon, the company that makes the A5, is marketing this light "sport" airplane primarily as a plaything, not a workhorse for commuting or business trips. Company officials are positioning the A5 as a plane that will bring the "romance" back to flying by enabling couples' getaways to remote and pristine spots.
The A5 has retractable landing gear and a hull-shaped fuselage that make it capable of operating from a runway as well as from the water's surface. It requires a mere 750 feet (228.6 meters) for takeoffs and landings.
Former Air Force fighter pilot, Stanford Business School graduate and Icon co-founder Kirk Hawkins has said the company began to take advantage of FAA rules that created a sport aircraft category in 2004. Icon is seeking to exploit the market niche created by those rules by designing an airplane that's small (34-foot (10.4-meter) wingspan), lightweight (less than 1,000 pounds (453.6 kilograms)) and easy to fly (Hawkins says a non-pilot can be trained to fly one in as little as two weeks) [source: Icon Aircraft].
The plane has successfully flown and could be available to customers by fall of 2011 for around $140,000.
But let's say, for instance, that you don't want to compromise on the "car" portion of your flying car? The next vehicle promises sports car performance on the ground, along with a not-too-shabby 275-mile per hour (442.6-kilometer per hour) air speed.
Unlike lots of flying car "concepts" out there, the LaBiche Aerospace FSC-1 (Flying Sports Car-1) has actually moved beyond the design stage by flying a prototype. Well, sort of.
This envisioned 180-mile per hour (289.7-kilometer per hour) street, 275-mile per hour (442.6-kilometer per hour) air vehicle has been flight tested as a quarter-scale radio-controlled model. Company officials have also tested and demonstrated the aircraft using a life-size cockpit as the centerpiece of an FSC-1 virtual simulator. As for appearance, you could say it looks like many high-performance supercars, with the only giveaways to its aerial alter ego being numerous doors and hatches that hide flight surfaces. As an airplane, it vaguely resembles many of the lightweight, canard-bearing, revolutionary aircraft that emerged from the designing pen of aviation pioneer Burt Rutan.
As the name suggests, the FSC-1 is built to deliver sports car performance when in ground mode. The producers say their intent was actually to eliminate all visual hints that the vehicle can fly, so as not to invite passersby to interfere with sensitive air control surfaces when they see the FSC-1 parked.
That means the wings, canard, and distinctive V-tail must fold and stow into hollow areas on the car's body. Projected cost per car (plane) is around $175,000, and the company says it is it will be available "sometime in the near future [source: LaBiche Aerospace]."
For more information about flying cars and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.
The electric car startup Faraday Future just introduced its first production vehicle, the FF 91, at CES 2017. Learn about the FF 91 at HowStuffWorks.
- Adams, William Lee. "Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Q&A." Time. May 28, 2009. (Jan. 28, 2010)http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1900969,00.html
- Frank, Thomas. "Feds Keep Little-Used Airports in Business." USA Today. Sept. 17, 2009. (Jan. 31, 2010)http://www.usatoday.com/travel/flights/2009-09-17-little-used-airports_N.htm
- Icon Aircraft. (Feb. 1, 2010)http://www.iconaircraft.com/
- LaBiche Aerospace FSC-1. (Feb. 1, 2010)http://www.labicheaerospace.com/
- NASA. "Small Aircraft Transportation System." (Feb. 1, 2010)http://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/factsheets/SATS.html
- Popular Mechanics. "Flying Cars: Your So-Called Sci-Fi Life." April 23, 2007. (Jan. 27, 2010)http://www.popularmechanics.com/blogs/automotive_news/4215922.html
- Skycar Expedition. (Jan. 31, 2010)http://www.skycarexpedition.com/index.php
- Waller, Steven "Monk." "Transformer - TX Proposer's Day Workshop." Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Tactical Technology Office. Jan. 14, 2010. (Jan. 31, 2010)https://www.fbo.gov/download/4c3/4c3b97485d84ad52cad7f0d8fe57420b/Final_Waller_TX_Industry_Briefing.pdf