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Highways in the Sky: Flying Cars and the Future of Travel 
 
by Mark R. Whittington September 30, 2005

In the 1960s cartoon series, the Jetsons, people regularly commuted to work in flying cars. It was considered increadible science fiction. But, science fiction may be on the verge of becoming reality sooner than people imagine.

Nearly everyone has been in a traffic jam. It is one of the most frustrating experiences of modern life. One sits in a car on a freeway while is slowly, agonizingly inches forward in a river of other cars, jammed and grid locked, breathing in the fumes of the car ahead. Many people in modern cities spend an hour a day or more in such conditions, just for the privilege of going to and from work.

Who has not dreamed of rising above the traffic, of flying over the jammed freeways in some futuristic vehicle out of the Jetsons, and getting to work in a few minutes? Who has not imagined of being in that place, famously suggested in the movie Back to the Future, where, “We don’t need roads.” There are people who are working toward realizing the day when that place is every place, where people travel the skies in flying cars more easily than they drive to work.

The History of the Flying Car

Ever since the beginning of the 20th Century, when the airplane and the automobile came into their own, people have dreamed of combining the two technologies into a vehicle that anyone can own and fly. As early as 1917, Glenn Curtiss, the aircraft designer who was the rival of the Wright Brothers, built a vehicle he called the autoplane. It never really flew, but did manage a few short hops.

There were a number of other attempts to build a flying car in the 1930s and 1940s that foundered because of lack of funding or, in the case of the ConvAirCar in 1947 because it crashed on the third flight. Many people lost their shirts or even died trying to test their flying car prototypes. In the 1950s and 1960s, Moulton Taylor’s Aerocar, designed to drive, then fly, then drive after landing came very close to being marketed by the Ford Motor Company. The energy crises of the 1970s put and end to those plans. The Aerocar was also hard to fly in bad weather and was, in any case, very expensive.

Flying Cars Today

With the advent of modern, light weight materials and computer technology, the promise of flying cars may be about to be fulfilled. A number of inventors and small companies are working on their versions of flying cars that they hope will revolutionize personal travel. Meanwhile, NASA is developing a traffic control program called Highway in the Sky, which will allow thousands of flying cars to operate at once without crashing into one another.

The Skycar

The acknowledged front runner in the race to build the first viable flying car is Paul Moller, who has spent forty years and millions of dollars building and testing personal aircraft. His first attempt, the XM-2 managed to hover but not actually fly in 1965. In 1989 Moller started testing the M200X, which has flown 200 times and can go as high as fifty feet. The current version of the Skycar, the M400, has eight sets of rotary engines that tilt up to take off vertically and then tilt forward to fly. It can reach speeds of 400 mph, but will cruise at around 350 mph, and it has a range of 750 miles. Gasoline, diesel, alcohol, kerosene and propane can be used to fuel the Skycar, and its fuel mileage will be comparable to that of a medium-sized car, getting 20 miles to the gallon. In the event of an accident, it would deploy parachutes and both interior and exterior air bags to facilitate a soft landing

So far there is only one copy of the M400 and it has been tested on a tether to guard against catastrophic failure. Moller envisions a commercial version of the Skycar being available in ten or fifteen years. Even before then Skycars could be used for military, law enforcement, and rescue applications, as well as for wealthy hobbyists.

Other Flying Cars

Other companies are developing their versions of the flying car. Macro Industries of Huntsville, Alabama is developing a flying car called the Skyrider X2-R. The X2-R has a maximum speed of 355 mph with a range of 800 nautical miles. Macro claims that the production version of their flying car will be available in about five years.

The CarterCopter, being developed by Carter Aviation Technologies, has a large rotary engine on top, like a helicopter, and a smaller one in the rear to provide propulsion. It can fly at five hundred miles an hour. Company founder, Jay Carter, a former engineer at Bell, does not envision creating a production model in the near future, as he is concentrating on research and development. He does suggest that when the first production model is available, it will probably be a kind of air taxi that can take a handful of passengers between nearby cities, beating out commercial jets because the trip would be between downtown heliports, obviating the need to go to distant air ports.

NASA’s Highway in the Sky

All of these flying cars will never get off the ground unless there is a means to control them while they are in flight. Fortunately, NASA has developed a computer and tracking system called the Highway in the Sky. Using satellites and global positioning system, the Highway in the Sky will provide a heads up display for a pilot of a flying car. It will be much like a video game, that will create a kind of virtual box in which the pilot has to keep his vehicle to keep it from crashing into other flying cars.

Other notions include using the same sort of system to preprogram a flying car’s flight path so that once in the air, the pilot would not have to physically control the air craft. The NASA program will even help pilots fly during bad weather by providing a virtual view of the world outside.

Flying Cars: When and How?

When one can buy and operate the first flying car is still open to question. Most people developing flying cars suggest that prices in the range of a million to a half million will be common for the first production model, putting them out of reach for most people. But, most also envision flying cars to eventually come down in price to about fifty thousand dollars a copy or even less, the cost of a typical luxury car such as a Lexus or BMW.

The first flying cars will probably be used by institutions such as the military, law enforcement agencies, and commercial air tax services. But the time may come, if the people developing these vehicles are right, when one can roll one’s flying car out of the garage in the morning, take off, and land at the office building air park in a matter of minutes. One could take one’s air car to nearby vacation spots, the beach, or a rural camping ground, in less than an hour. One can fly to a nearby city, say Washington to New York or Houston to Dallas, and bypass the hassle of going to the air port. In the more distant future, one can imagine that the air liner itself would be rendered obsolete by flying cars with increasing range and speed. The state of personal travel could be revolutionized in greater ways since the development of the automobile.


 

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