The question I get asked the most when someone finds out I write about cars for a living is “Will we have flying cars in our lifetime?”
It's a question that always strikes me as funny because I have some news that isn’t exactly breaking: Flying cars already exist and have for many, many years. But realistically, the chances that you’ll ever own a flying car are incredibly slim -- but not for the reasons you probably think.
When you look at the history of flying cars, then at the ones that are currently in development, you’ll see a trend: serious efforts by major manufacturers are few and far between. Unless that happen -- and it won't anytime soon -- you won't be seeing a flying car in your neighbor's driveway.
The history of flying cars includes Pintos with wings and other horrible ideas
Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Go back to the 1930s and beyond, and you’ll find many examples of one plane and one car getting down in some dim lighting and giving birth to an experimental flying monstrosity.
The contraption you're looking at was one of these hybrid lovechildren: the AVE Mizar (Advanced Vehicle Engineering) and it came shockingly close to production... in that the lone working prototype actually made it to the testing phase before crashing and killing its designer. The most astonishing part of the project wasn't even that it combined a Cessna with a Ford Pinto, but that the damned thing actually flew. Ultimately, a combination of poor engineering (Cessna + Pinto = Nope) and shoddy craftsmanship resulted in exactly what you’d expect from a flying Pinto.
And then there was that time the government tried to make a flying saucer
The 1950s was an interesting decade of experimentation and the only time any serious funding went into flying car projects. The notion of what a flying car really is was tested more than any other point in history, with projects stretching the definition in every direction imaginable. There were even plans for a flying jeep, more like a personal-sized helicopter than anything resembling a roadgoing vehicle.
And then there was the contraption you see above. Yes, it’s a flying saucer. Named the Avrocar, its purpose was to allow soldiers to fly 1,000 miles in just over three hours, at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Instead, after a ton of work, it yielded performance numbers closer to 80 miles in just over two hours... traveling at just three feet off the ground.
Basically, history hasn't been good for flying cars.
As the saying goes: that was then, and this is now
First of all, there’s a difference between a flying car and a roadable aircraft. The latter typically has more in common with an actual car, and it’s what most people think of these days when they talk about “flying cars.” What you’re looking at is called the Aeromobil, and it’s an aircraft that can be driven on the road that’s been under development in Slovakia since back when Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia. It’s only been under real-world testing for about a year, and the videos of it paint a pretty unnerving picture. But on the plus side, it’s only dropped terrifyingly from the sky once.
There are several others currently in development, but like the Aeromobil, they’re mostly small, personal aircrafts that don't require a special trailer to transport to the airport. You’ll be able to buy one before you die, provided you’ve got a few hundred grand to spend.
This is an actual, honest to God, totally legit flying car
And here we have a vehicle that can roll down the road and fly to your destination without you having to touch a thing, thanks to the wonders of autonomous flight. By the developer’s (Terrafugia) most optimistic estimates, it’s only a decade away.
That said, there is roughly a zero percent chance of something like this going into production during our lifetime.
Not because it’s impossible -- it definitely can be done. Developing a vehicle that’s capable of vertical take-off and landing, so you can take off from your driveway, essentially, is difficult, but it’s been done before, and autopilot (both for cars and for planes) will get you down the road and up into the air while you’re taking a nap.
If I’m wrong, I’ll eat my words in a decade and gladly hop in a Terrafugia for a trip to the beach, where I assume cabana-bots will tend to my every need. But there are simply far too many legal, economic, and security barriers that a vehicle like this must work around, and a company like Terrafugia is, frankly, too small-time to clear those hurdles.
You’re talking about changing aircraft classification codes to allow non-licensed operators to ride in a small, heavy plane. You’re talking about producing these on a relatively massive scale and getting the costs down to a point that some one percenters can afford one. And that says nothing about the risk of the autonomous system being hacked, or of a flying car wandering into restricted airspace, such as a landing path for jetliners.
Major corporations have the power to make it happen, but the biggies have shown zero interest in it. So until you see Ford, GM, and Toyota partnering with the Boeings and Airbuses of the world, holding your breath for these types of flying cars will succeed only in making you red in the face.
In reality, the best flying cars aren’t science fiction-derived oddities
They’re logical evolutions of known concepts, like the Skyrunner, which is an awesome combination of a badass off-road dune buggy and a parasail. It can drive down the road, fly over it, and even land safely if there’s an engine failure (it has a parachute, duh). If you want a flying car right now, something like this is your best bet, although you’re not going to be taking any cross-country road trips (air trips?) in it, and you have to get a sport pilot license. There’s no doubt it’s a ridiculously fun weekend plaything, but it’s simply not meant to turn your commute into George Jetson’s.
Sorry, DeLorean fans. It’s just not gonna happen.
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