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
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