Imagine easing up and over slow-moving traffic, backed-up bridges and tied-up tunnels … The flying car may be here sooner than you think
“Mark my words: A combination airplane and motor car is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”
The automobile pioneer Henry Ford spoke these words in 1940. Some technological ages down the line and his prediction remains unfulfilled despite the efforts of a host of inventors – from top-notch scientists to amateur mechanics – to create a serviceable flying car. Over 2200 models have been built and roughly 300 actually took off, but there was not one prototype suitable for serial production among them.
Until now, that is. In the U.S. and Europe, tests are underway on flying cars that are rumored to be almost ready to market. The engineers owe their breakthrough to carbon, a very lightweight material they are using for bodywork (heavier models didn’t even get off the ground). Promising models include the AeroMobil from Slovakia, Terrafugia Transition from the U.S. and the Carplane from Germany; their developers hope to be able to start selling them soon.
The potential market is massive. Who wouldn’t want to make an airborne detour over a closed-off highway? Such a car would fulfill many a Hollywood dream. Apart from being able to travel on the ground and through the air, the new models have little in common with the sleek Batmobile, the legendary DeLorean from Back to the Future or the blue Ford Anglia in which Harry Potter jets off to Hogwarts. The real-life models use aerodynamic principles – and are luxury products. An AeroMobil, Carplane or Transition will likely cost as much as 300 000 euros. But you don’t have to be Batman to drive one, and no great aviation skills are required, either. Issues such as flying licenses, permits and liability have not yet been finally settled, and flying cars likely won’t be permitted in big cities, which lack necessary infrastructure like runways. Instead, the new hybrids could take off in sparsely populated areas, such as rural regions of the U.S., Australia or Saudi Arabia, making them very appealing to millionaires with remote properties. It seems, once again, Henry Ford was spot on.
With the wings of an albatross and a cabin shaped like a snub nose, the Arrowbile is famous for being the first flying car to actually stay up in the air. Its inventor, Waldo Waterman, built the vehicle in California in the 1930s. Today’s engineers may sneer at the Arrowbile’s mechanics, but Heinrich Bülthoff, an expert on biological cybernetics at the Max Planck institute in Tübingen, Germany, is impressed: “You use the same steering wheel to control the Arrowbile on the ground as you do in the air. That’s very user friendly.” The cockpit even had room for a passenger, so the Arrowbile was ideal for romantic outings, too.
The Aerocar became a media sensation in United States in the fifties. It was the ultimate flash set of wheels for the car-crazy playboy in the sitcom “The Bob Cummings Show.” To switch to road mode, you had to fold up the wings and tail manually, a metamorphosis that Bülthoff, the Max-Planck expert, dismisses as “too complex.” Today, the Aerocar models, manufactured by the U.S. company Moulton Taylor, are sought-after collector’s items. One seller is offering an Aerocar at the reduced (!) price of 2.2 million dollars on aerocarforsale.com, where he describes it as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
At 440 kilos, the Maverick weighs roughly the same as a Fiat Nuva 500. The lightweight car gets its lift from a small propeller and a parachute. Its slender body looks a lot like a dune buggy, and it’s as agile as a scooter on the ground. The Maverick was designed by missionary Steve Saint; as a development worker in South America he dreamed of a vehicle he could use to reach the most remote settlements in the Amazon, across mud tracks and through the air. Bülthoff likes the simple design: “The Maverick gets by without high-tech engineering,” he says, “its glider technology gives do-it-yourselfers the option of making their dream of a flying car come true.”
Millions of Germans know and love the flying car in this classic puppet film: The egg-shaped “Fliewatüüt,” which can fly, drive and float on water, is well ahead of the competition in Hollywood. This is mainly thanks to the rotors that lift it up like a helicopter, a design that is still considered forward-looking. Because the vehicle ascends vertically, it needs no runway, allowing pilots to take off from the front yard. However, there are still a few small issues, not least safety, to be solved before technology catches up with this particular piece of fiction.
In this James Bond classic, the villain Scaramanga makes a spectacular escape, speeding out of a barn, its wings rigid on the roof, and soaring into the clouds in his golden coupe. All 007 could do was gaze after it in bemused admiration. But the car was not a viable model for real-life roadable aircraft; its body was altogether too heavy and bulky.
The hundreds of cars you see whizzing through the air between the skyscrapers are science fiction at its best. The multi-level traffic would require highly sophisticated flight control systems involving autopilot steering. The film, in which a taxi driver (played by Bruce Willis) rescues the world from evil emanating from the depths of space, is set in 2263. A lot can happen in the meantime.
Designers call it a “revolution”: the light, supply Transition by U.S. startup Terrafugia. It’s the first commercial model of its kind to be made of carbon and is currently under construction. Its wings fold away automatically, instantly turning it back into a car. The body is as minimalist as the cabin of the BMW Isetta (bubble car). Bülthoff says: “The Transition is as close to a functional flying car as it gets.” However, he criticizes the wingspan: “Like a glider, it needs an airfield to land and take off, which is a great drawback.”
The German contribution to the international fleet of flying cars is the Carplane from Brunswick, which featues an extravagant dual body, similar to that of a catamaran. This sleek car flies through the air at a speed of 200 km/h. On the ground, the wings are folded between the two body sections, making for good downthrust and speeds of up to 176 km/h. As a typical German feature, the Carplane will comply with the Euro 5 emission standard, a very respectable eco footprint for a flying car of this format.
The AeroMobil is the European rival of the U.S. Transition and it employs the same principle: a carbon structure with folding wings. The AeroMobil has the advantage that it needs less space to land: supposedly only 50 meters. So how good is it in the air? In May, a prototype crashed during a test and the pilot had to bail out with his parachute. The crash pilot was the design expert Stefan Klein, who had previously done research for both Audi and BMW. In the key test stage “unexpected events” can occur, he noted dismissively, adding that now at least, they know the emergency systems work.