A down-to-earth look at flying cars

Nov 11, 2017 - 8:30 PM

My father used to dream of flying cars, but not of wanting one. Rather, he would wake up troubled by abstract images of headlights crisscrosssing the night sky in what he saw as a presage of future personal travel that scared the bejabbers out of him.

Unlike my dad, many people seem to think owning a flying car would be awesome. There’s appeal in the Bond-esque concept of pulling off a jammed highway, unfurling a set of wings with the push of a button, and thumbing one’s nose at the suckers on the road while lifting off into the wild blue yonder.

This fantasy has led countless self-styled futurists to pursue development of a flying car, a few of which have won certification. But a commercially successful model has yet to come along.

Why is that? Molt Taylor’s Aerocar received a production certificate way back in the 1950s, so how is it that 21st century technology hasn’t filled the skies with better, cheaper flying cars by now?

Part of the reason may be that while everyone knows what a car is, most people have limited understanding of a personal airplane’s capabilities. The designers who develop flying cars are usually pilots, and they work on the assumption that their target buyers understand airplanes. The problem is that as people learn more about the class of airplane that can be transformed into a car, they become increasingly disillusioned. And the cost—close to $300,000 for the developmental Terrafugia Transition, for example—limits potential customers to those who tend to resist allowing their expectations to be pared down.

Consider what the Transition can and cannot do as an airplane, and as a car.

First of all, Terrafugia acknowledged early on that highway-worthiness would be a much greater challenge than airworthiness. The features that make a good car—a climate-controlled passenger compartment, robust suspension system, and a smooth, powerful drivetrain—are the antithesis of what makes a viable small airplane. Aeronautical engineers strive for simplicity and lightweight materials to eke out maximum lift performance with minimal engine power. In the light sport category, at least, creature comforts play a distant second fiddle.

The Transition is a medium-performance light sport airplane, not particularly fast or spacious, with takeoff and landing requirements that are reasonable but not exemplary for its class. And it’s a serviceable automobile, but it’s no match in performance and comfort for most manufacturers’ low-end econoboxes.

But with a Transition, you could, in fact, pull off that crowded highway and fly away from the traffic jam. (You’d need a runway to take off, though, so you’d have to drive to an airport.)

Much more common, though, would be scenarios that reflect the original concept: rather than view the Transition as a car you could sometimes fly, think of it as an airplane you could sometimes drive down the road. Say you fly off for a weekend vacation several hundred air miles away, but halfway there, bad weather forces you to land. For most light airplane owners, the only options would be to wait out the weather or rent a car and return later to retrieve the airplane.

With the Transition, you could simply land at the nearest airport, fold the wings, and drive on. It’s likely you could also relaunch from another airport on the far side of the weather system and continue your trip by air. The automotive option makes light airplane flying much more dependable for weekend flyers—and for salespeople, consultants, and other professionals who would save time and expand their markets with the ability to fly safely and reliably within about 500 miles of home base.

There’s another advantage that’s underappreciated, in my view. Though critics argue that the difference in cost between the Transition and a used light airplane of comparable performance is enough to pay for lots of car rentals, consider the time savings of a fly/
drive vehicle. With the Transition, pilots load their belongings once, at home, and needn’t unload until reaching the front door of the final destination. Before dismissing that as a trivial advantage, consider saving the time and energy it takes to load your car at home, empty it at the airport, reload it into the airplane, transfer it to a rental car, and then repeat this process for the trip home.

While it’s true that many FBOs make the rental car experience rather seamless, some are not so good. With a road-worthy airplane, you could drive to the airport, fly to your target airport, fold the wings, and drive to your final destination. No rental car pickup and drop-off, and no reloading and unloading. This could save several hours on a multistop trip.

Admittedly, the market for flying cars is now limited. But if expectations were more realistic, that could change.