A Flying Car in Every Garage?
Combining car and plane into a single vehicle remains a dream—but new efforts might change that
By now, in the second decade of the 21st century, even pointing out the cliché has itself become a cliché. Namely, the frustrated tongue-in-cheek query favored by stand-up comics, science fiction geeks, social commentators, and technology critics: where’s my flying car? Which is generally followed by yet another tired old chestnut: the observation that the question has come to symbolize some failure of technological optimism, scientific advancement, or the supposed predictive powers of science fiction.
But what most of the people who ask that question (whether seriously or jokingly) don’t realize is that it actually has an answer. In fact, as almost eighty patents filed with the U.S. Patent Office testify, it’s been answered many times by all sorts of people, going back at least a century, around the time when both the automobile and the airplane were invented and somebody had the bright idea of combining the two. Flying cars have not only already been built, they exist today, and are being planned for the future.
So the proper question, and the one that no doubt most of the questioners really mean, is: where’s the flying car that’s going to zip me to work over all the gridlock at the press of a button, fit into my garage, and run on regular gas? Or, as Penn State aeronautics professor Mark Maughmer puts it, “the Jetsons thing.” That’s a considerably more complex question, involving tricky problems of technology, economics, logistics, and even psychology. But two current projects, one military, one civilian, are addressing those very problems—and finally, after a century of attempts, the true flying car might become a practical reality, even if “the Jetsons thing” remains elusive.
The first task of any flying car enthusiast is to precisely define their terms. George Jetson’s vehicle, for example, wasn’t really an automobile—it had no wheels and didn’t move along the ground on roads. More properly, it was essentially a personal flight vehicle, and for many people, particularly those weaned on grandiose science fictional visions of the future, that’s what the term “flying car” actually means. In this case, “car” refers merely to a mode of personal transport, rather than its more exact definition of a wheeled ground vehicle that operates on roads.
For most of the creative, determined, and sometimes rather eccentric individuals who have tried to build one, however, “flying car” meant exactly that: a vehicle that could fly (like an airplane) and also take to the road (like an automobile) with more or less equal facility, transitioning between the two modes with relative ease. That’s where the problems begin. “It’s taking two diametrically different, not opposed, but very different requirements of a vehicle and trying to merge them into a single vehicle,” notes Mark D. Moore, an aeronautics engineer at NASA Langley Research Center. “The result is a vehicle that’s not good at either of the two separate missions.”
Mark Lewis, former Air Force Chief Scientist and now President of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, agrees: “As a general rule, hybrid systems tend not to work very well, as in combining two different functions or two different technologies. Because almost invariably, you’re making compromises in both modes of operation.” While airplanes have to be kept as lightweight and aerodynamically efficient as possible, cars must be built to handle well on the road and for safety in case of collision, requirements which tend to add weight. And as Maughmer points out, even in racing cars, the fastest and most lightweight cars built, “it’s got to be safe for the driver, so the driver wears a helmet and a fire retardant suit, he gets strapped in by a crew of four, and so forth and so on. If we had to get in our cars that way, we’d go, oh, that’s inconvenient, I don’t want to do it.”
Those conflicting requirements haven’t stopped the dreamers, though, beginning with aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss and industrial wizard Henry Ford, who, in separate unsuccessful projects, made the first attempts at such a vehicle early last century. Many have followed in their tire tracks, with varying degrees of success. Waldo Waterman, a colleague of Curtiss, is generally credited with building the first flying car to actually get off the ground, the Waterman Aerobile, which made its first flight in 1937.
The attention of aircraft designers was temporarily distracted by more important matters during World War II, but after the war, the dream blossomed anew, encouraged by post-war American prosperity and optimism. The Convair company, better known for no-nonsense military aircraft such as the B-36 bomber, built two prototypes of a flying car in 1947. That was followed by Moulton Taylor’s “Aerocar” in 1949, of which six examples were built. But neither design attracted enough interest to go into full production. Every few years, it seemed, another flying car concept would come along, excite a brief flurry of attention, then fade into oblivion when the expected investors and customers failed to materialize—often after a dismal crash, as with the 1973 AVE Mizar, an unwieldy cross between a Cessna and a Ford Pinto. Meanwhile, the vehicle became a staple of comic books, science fiction, and popular culture in general, including examples such as the quaint Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, Blade Runner’s sleek and elegant Spinner, and of course, George Jetson’s briefcase-collapsible flivver.
So what’s so hard about it? The basic idea seems straightforward enough. While the engineering challenges are daunting, they’re certainly not insurmountable, considering technological advances in materials, engines, and control systems in recent years. But there are other issues that are keeping it out of your garage, even beyond the high cost that such a vehicle would inevitably bear.
As the eternal popularity of station wagons, pickup trucks, and SUVs has amply demonstrated, Americans not only want to get around with complete mobility and convenience, they want to be able to carry a lot of stuff around with them—and more friends or family members than just a single companion to ride shotgun. But the more weight you want to get off the ground, the larger and thus heavier the vehicle has to be. “Essentially there’s geometric constraints for things to be about car size, and aircraft don’t like to be that small, for very good reasons, performance reasons,” Moore says. “So it really boxes roadable aircraft down to a size where it can only be a one or two person vehicle. If you’re going to drive on the ground, okay, go ahead and have a five-passenger car, because the penalty in terms of efficiency and cost isn’t that much more considering the gross weight of the vehicle. But for an aircraft, as soon as you get it up into the air, you’re lugging around all that extra weight and not using it. To be able to carry five people around the few percent of the time you actually do it, there’s a significant penalty to that.”
Then there are the issues of traffic control. “If you had a lot of people driving flying cars, think about what it would do to our civil infrastructure,” notes Mark Lewis. “I mean, imagine how bad traffic jams would be in three dimensions!” And while concepts have been developed that could control flying vehicles (and land vehicles) autonomously with complete safety, that would mean giving up something that, for most Americans, is the very essence of personal transportation: freedom. As Maughmer observes, “We can take off and land autonomously, it’s done frequently [with commercial airliners].” Noting the various proposals for “electronic highways” and driverless vehicles, he says, “You could track every vehicle and know where it is relative to every other vehicle. There’s nothing that prevents us from doing it now, other than Americans aren’t about to give up the control of their car to a computer. And it’s the same with airplanes.” Or for that matter, flying cars.
But if you’re really determined to have both wings and wheels in the same package, all is not yet lost. The catch is that to realize your dream, you will either need a pilot’s license and a sizable bank account, or be willing to go to boot camp.
While the flying car, both in its fictional incarnations and real-world examples, has for the most part been considered strictly a civilian vehicle, the latest and greatest incarnation—and one that might actually become a reality—is intended for the battlefield. Ironically, it might end up being the closest achievable thing to the Jetsons ideal if it works as hoped. Ultimately, for the average citizen, a flying car would be more of a novelty than a practical reality. For the military, however, the concept has real value. The ability to drive on the highway and yet be able to fly over obstacles might be an attractive convenience for the harried commuter, but for the soldier facing a 21st century combat environment of insurgents using mines, IEDs, and other booby traps, it could prove a lifesaver.
Appropriately enough, plans for the military’s flying car were hatched by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an organization known for coming up with outlandish, off-the-wall notions (such as, for example, the Internet). Their concept, called the Transformer TX (not to be confused with any sort of giant alien battle robot from a Michael Bay movie), is actually less a flying car than a flying Humvee capable of carrying up to four fully-equipped troops. “While there have been lots of attempts at flying cars and some of them have actually worked, none of them have ever been elegant enough to be tactically worthy of pursuing,” says James Lasswell, technical director of the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. “There’s been a lot of advances in technology just recently that makes it look like this thing might be actually feasible.”
Obviously any military vehicle needs to be much more robust than a civilian craft, and the requirements DARPA has set out to the defense contracting industry are sufficiently daunting. The TX is intended to carry a payload of slightly over a thousand pounds, operating both as an off-road vehicle similar to a Humvee or SUV at speeds up to 80 mph, but also capable of quickly transitioning into VTOL mode to get into the air and then switching to forward flight using folding wings to reach altitudes up to 10,000 feet. It would have a range of about 250 miles on a single tank of fuel (driving and/or flying), and would also have to be relatively quiet (at least, no noisier than a small helicopter). And it would be at least partially, if not fully, automated, meaning that even the average non-pilot grunt could operate it.
Says DARPA in its solicitation documents, “Current transport systems present operational limitations where the warfighter is either anchored to the ground with HMMWVs [Humvees] and thus vulnerable to ambush, or reliant on helicopters, which are limited in flight speed and availability.” But the TX would provide “unimpeded movement over difficult terrain. Transportation is no longer restricted to trafficable terrain that tends to make movement predictable. The TX vehicle can avoid IEDs and ambushes, while also allowing the warfighter to approach targets from directions that give our warfighters the advantage in mobile ground operations.”
In effect, the TX would fill a niche between ground vehicles and full-fledged helicopters, much as the V-22 Osprey straddles the gap between choppers and airplanes. “The intent of the thing is to avoid obstacles, be able to jump over a stream bed, go over IEDs, to keep from being channelized on roads that most vehicles are,” says Lasswell. DARPA envisions a variety of missions for the TX, including insertion and extraction of special forces units, evacuation of wounded soldiers, and logistical support for troops in the field. Because it could also fly between ships at sea and hot spots on the ground, the Marine Corps finds the idea especially attractive. Lasswell notes that while the TX wouldn’t replace helicopters or other aircraft—“this is not something that’s probably headed toward being an assault vehicle”—he speculates that “I think we might be thinking about this as more of a logistics thing. It might be something that would give you some mobility for your command elements to get around.”
For fighting wars in geographically challenging locations such as Afghanistan, with its rugged mountains and primitive roads (where roads exist), the hybrid characteristics of a vehicle that troops can both ride and fly offer some enormous tactical advantages. There are also some notable disadvantages, of course, which is one reason the Transformer TX is not going to replace Humvees or Black Hawks. Armoring the vehicle would make it far too heavy, so the TX, while immune to roadside IEDs, would still be vulnerable to ground fire from small arms, RPGs, or even Stinger missiles. “This become tactics, you’re trading off one vulnerability for another,” Lasswell explains. “Quite frankly, there’s no such thing as safety on the future battlefield. This just gives you one more capability in your quiver that you can do. You travel low and use masking terrain and realize that you are vulnerable to some extent and people are going to come looking for you. No free lunch.”
Aside from the lightweight composite materials that are transforming aviation in general, such as in the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the key to the TX will probably be ducted-fan VTOL engines operated by electric propulsion. “We’re at the cusp of an innovation cycle in electric propulsion,” says NASA’s Mark Moore. “If you go to a VTOL aircraft, you end up not needing this huge amount of structure and huge amount of wing, because instead you have this propulsion system that can get you up in the air and it takes 15 seconds to transition [to forward flight] until you’re flying at 100 mph.” Electric propulsion would provide “that short burst of energy that you need to get up in the air, and then at cruise you could use a conventional hydrocarbon solution.”
DARPA is confident enough of the Transformer’s viability that it’s spending $40 million for development of a prototype vehicle to prove the concept. As usual, the agency is being close-mouthed about the details—partly, no doubt, because many of them have yet to be figured out—but if all goes according to current plans, a test model might be flying as early as 2014 or 2015. “This is certainly something that we’re looking at as a hedge against future threats,” says the USMC’s Lasswell. “It’s facing an issue that we thought was a real one, which is how do we manage to reduce the vulnerability of roads and IEDs? We look [to DARPA] for those big leaps ahead. This might be one if it works out.” And Moore concurs: “If you’d asked me 10 years ago, yes, I would say Transformer is a crazy vehicle and a crazy requirement, it’s too difficult. But now with the combination of electric propulsion and hybrid propulsion and autonomous systems, I think it has a real shot at providing a breakthrough capability for the Marines.”
That’s all very well for the leathernecks of the near future, but what about the civilian? A Massachusetts company called Terrafugia formed by a group of former MIT aeronautical engineers and MBAs has you covered. Unlike DARPA’s Transformer, however, which as yet exists only on paper and computer drives, Terrafugia’s craft, dubbed the Transition, has already proven itself in the air.
The Transition doesn’t pretend to be the ultimate in 21st century personal transport. “We are not marketing the Transition to replace your car,” says Richard Gersh, Terrafugia’s vice president for business development. It won’t be available to just anyone with a driver’s license: because it’s been classified by the FAA as a light sport aircraft, you’ll need at least a sport pilot certificate to fly it. And in the looks department, while it might be as cute as a VW Beetle, it’s hardly as sleek and sexy as a Porsche.
But it does work as advertised. On the ground, it drives just like a car, a two-seat, four-wheeled vehicle about twenty feet in length and half that in width, running on regular unleaded gasoline, getting great mileage of about 35 miles per gallon, capable of speeds up to 65 mph and a range of up to about 400 miles on a single tank of gas. Drive it to any small airport, however, and the Transition fulfills its name. With the press of a button, the wings folded up on its sides extend and lock into place in about 30 seconds. The engine switches from driving the rear wheels to running the pusher propeller at the back of the craft, and the Transition is ready for flight, needing a takeoff run of only about 1700 feet. A proof-of-concept vehicle made its maiden flight in the spring of 2009 with a retired Air Force test pilot at the controls, who proclaimed the experience “remarkably unremarkable.” A successful full flight test program followed, and Terrafugia has taken enough pre-orders—each with a $10,000 refundable deposit —to begin gearing up for limited production, with the first customer delivery expected in 2011.
Made mostly of strong yet lightweight carbon fiber material, a fully loaded Transition, complete with a pilot, passenger, and luggage, weighs about 1430 pounds, 110 pounds over the limit for light sport aircraft dictated by the FAA. The agency granted the Transition a special exemption to allow for additional equipment to meet safety standards for both aircraft and highway vehicles, such as airbags for the ground and a BRS (Ballistic Recovery System) for the sky—literally a parachute that can bring the entire craft back down safely to Earth in a dire emergency.
Still, while the Transition may be the most successful realization yet of the flying car dream, it also falls short of the George Jetson ideal. But that wasn’t Terrafugia’s goal. “We emphasize is that first and foremost, this is an airplane, with the added capability to be driven,” says Gersh. By positioning the Transition as an airplane with some unique and convenient capabilities, instead of as an actual “flying car,” Terrafugia hopes to avoid the traditional criticism that flying cars tend to be, as Mark Maughmer puts it, “a jack of all trades, master of none.”
Gersh explains, “Should you encounter bad weather, which is typically the problem for small general aviation aircraft, you have that capability of landing at the closest airport and using the vehicle on the ground in its automobile configuration.” That, he says, opens up “one of the most unused transportation resources in this country, the more than 5000 general use airports in the country that do not have commercial flights but are available to the flying public. So the use of that infrastructure is a key element in what we believe will be the success of our project.”
The emphasis on the Transition as an aircraft rather than a flying car also sidesteps one of the possible obstacles to its success: the pilot’s license requirement. Although the sport pilot certificate is the most basic level of private pilot, requiring only 20 hours of instruction, it’s unclear how many non-pilots would go through the process simply to be able to pilot a Transition. But for those who already hold at least the sport pilot certification or beyond, the Transition might offer a handy option. Says Gersh, “For the couple that wants to use it for leisure travel, and we’ve sold a number to folks in that category, who want to fly from small airport to small airport and see the sights in the area, they can certainly do that. If the weather is bad, they have a car with them. We’ve sold them to business people who are going to use it for business, if their business involves going to areas that are serviced by smaller airports as opposed to the larger airports. For the right scenario, this vehicle certainly would fit the bill.” While the FAA classification of the Transition as a light sport aircraft limits it to flying only in good weather during the daytime at relatively low altitudes, its ability to switch to ground travel means no layovers at out-of-the-way airports.
The expected price, which although yet to be finalized, will probably be just under $200,000, is another factor that might dissuade the average citizen. The Transition’s destiny will hinge on the number of existing pilots who might find it attractive, along with those willing to take some flying lessons to earn the privilege to fly such a unique vehicle. Mark Maughmer observes, “To have a successful flying car, all they need to do is sell enough to stay in business and make money. Then it’s successful and it’s viable. The question is, how big is that market? There could be enough people to make it a successful product.”
No matter how successful the Transformer TX and Transition may ultimately become, “the Jetsons thing” that, as Lewis describes it, “you hop in your car, drive out of your driveway, then start flying” is most likely to remain a cartoonish fantasy, barring any profound changes in our societal and cultural attitudes and a complete overhaul of the existing transportation infrastructure. “There are other issues as well,” Lewis explains. “The level of maintenance that you need in an aviation system is obviously much higher than the level of maintenance you need in an automobile. If you have a mechanical problem with your car, you pull off to the side of the road. You don’t do that in your airplane. So very obviously in aviation we have much more stringent maintenance requirements and sustainment issues. That not only drives up the cost of operation but also the cost of manufacture and the cost of repair.”
For engineers such as Lewis and Maughmer, the bottom line isn’t so much whether flying cars can be built – they can – but whether they’re worth all the inevitable operational compromises. “It’s doable but when you squeeze the Jell-O, this one squirts out in every direction,” Maughmer laughs. As history has demonstrated, there are no shortages of ideas for different approaches. “My design class worked on the flying car quite a few times, because it’s an interesting problem for students,” he says. “Like any kind of engineering solution, there’s no right answer. There’s an infinite number of okay answers, and what ultimately decides it is marketing.”
Although he’s intrigued by current projects such as the Transformer and the Transition, Mark Lewis also remains skeptical about any ultimate “Jetsons thing.” He says, “I think it’s pretty safe to say that for the foreseeable future, we won’t be seeing that.” As for the present and near future, “I would be pessimistic about flying cars having anything other than a niche appeal. I find it hard to believe that the compromises that you would make in such a system would make ownership sufficiently attractive to a large segment of the population.”
But Lewis also acknowledges Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum: “When a distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” He admits, “There will always be folks interested in a novel, unique system. I mean, why are people buying Hummers to drive around their neighborhood? I never figured that one out,” he says with a laugh.
So, where’s that flying car of yours? The answer is, it’s out there, and if you want it badly enough, you can probably get your hands on it. But in the end, you might just decide that two separate vehicles – an airplane and a car – are better than one.