Ah the flying car, it’s like the milestone that needs to be hit before the general public believes we’re living in the future. I guess it’s because its so elusive, every time someone has made a prediction that we’d have one in X years (much like the jet pack) we’d inevitably reach that goal without a hint of it coming into reality. The reasons behind it are fairly simple, flying isn’t exactly easy and it’s not clear what the potential benefits of a flying car would be even if it could be made for mass use. Realistically it’s a solution in search of a problem and that’s the main reason why there’s been little serious development in the idea.
Of course there is a cross-over niche where some kind of flying car would have a potential market. There are many people who have their own aircraft, typically small 2 to 8 seater types, who do use them to travel distances that we’d usually take a commercial flight for. When they get to their destination though they’re in the same boat as we are, needing to find some kind of last mile transportation. The current solutions to this problem are the same for all travellers (hire cars, public transport, friends, etc.) but there’s been a few companies looking into solving this problem by making the air craft they take there road legal.
These are called, funnily enough, roadable aircraft.
The idea isn’t exactly new with examples of such craft dating all the way back to the 1930’s. Most of these designs weren’t terribly practical however usually requiring heavy amounts of work to transition between car and plane modes. There are several working modern designs that use parachutes to generate lift but they again suffer from practicality problems, usually being limited to joy craft rather than an actual useful means of transportation. There are 2 companies that have caught my eye in this space however and both of them has just recently made their maiden flight.
Terrafugia is a company that would be familiar to a lot of people since they’ve been attempting to make a roadable aircraft for just on 6 years. Their design, called the Transition, is an interesting one as it’s clear from the design that it’s primarily an aircraft that’s been modified to work on the road. To switch between plane and car modes the wings fold up along side it, allowing it to fit into standard size car spaces. Whilst its performance is nothing spectacular it does sport a rather incredible range for a vehicle, able to fly up to 787km or drive up to 1296KM. As they develop it further I’m sure they’ll make improvements to it as I’m sure I can recall those specs being a lot worse in the past.
The one that really caught my (and everyone else’s it seems) attention recently was the PAL-V One which takes yet another intriguing stab at the roadable aircraft idea. Instead of using wings to generate lift it instead relies on a set of helicopter blades that provide lift through autorotation with the thrust provided by a pusher propeller. Aviation nuts will recognise that system as an autogyro a curious combination of helicopter and plane components. The transition between autogyro and enclosed motorcycle takes about 10 minutes but can be done by a single pilot without any additional tools. Whilst I can’t see much of a use for it now (the runway requirement kind of puts out of reach for any domestic use) I really do think the design is quite cool.
Whilst both these craft are amazing in their own right they do highlight the issue with combining driving and flying. They are really 2 completely different methods of travel and neither of them will let a regular person with a driver’s license be a pilot of them. Indeed both of these craft will require a private pilot’s license if you want to fly them. Getting one isn’t exactly out of reach for everyone but still quite a hurdle requiring 50+ hours of flight time (10 solo), several written exams and a final test with an experienced pilot. The reasoning behind this is flying isn’t as easy as driving and that’s the main reason why you’ll probably never see skies full of flying cars, at least not for several decades.