We don’t need roads. Flying cars are no longer a dream or science fiction; Silicon Valley and aerospace companies focus on personal air travel
Video: Ty Davies
The fantasy of flying cars has always captivated humanity. The Supersonics, of the 1960s, was traveling in one with transparent cover; Luke Skywalker drove his X-34 Landspeeder and at Blade Runner they were the means to move through a bleak Los Angeles. And, in case they were not spectacular enough, in Back to the Future the DeLorean was traveling in time.
But although everything seems a matter of science fiction, flying cars have existed – in rudimentary form – for more than 70 years. Since Jules Verne introduced the idea in his novel, “Owner of the World,” published in 1904, generations of engineers have tried to make it a reality. In 1940, Henry Ford predicted that the combination of plane and car was inevitable. Seven years later, Theodore P. Hall tested the first prototype, the Convair Model 118, with which it managed 66 successful test flights. However, it was very heavy. After a forced landing it was considered as a project that was too dangerous and was never mass-produced.
But this first failed attempt failed to make other entrepreneurs discard the dream. Paul Moller, a 79-year-old engineer, has been building flying cars since 1966, with the idea of the Supersonics in mind: a parking plane in the garage, resembling a flying saucer with a seat protected by a plastic housing. Its first prototype, the XM-2, rose to a little more than a meter; its fourth prototype, the M200X reached 15 meters. Moller continued to try and filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Failure stories, including fatalities, are repeated on inaugural flights of this type of experimental means of transport.
But everything begins to change; Companies like Terrafugia, Aeromobil, Airbus and even Uber decided to stop dreaming and get down to work in pursuit of the flying car that reaches the mass market.
Better materials and navigation systems have convinced many companies (emerging and giants of the aerospace industry) that in the coming years we will have a car that will take off and land vertically, at least one small and electric to make short distances and escape Land traffic.
“In the last five years tremendous advances have been made in the underlying technology,” Mark Moore, a NASA aeronautical engineer, told Bloomberg. And he said: “What we will see in the next 10 years will be incredible.”
The Aeromobil 4.0 is the first prototype that stopped being a plan. Of this car and airplane hybrid, 500 units have already been manufactured at a cost of € 1.5 million each. With the wings folded, the Aeromobil can circulate like any land vehicle – requires driving license – and measures 5.9 meters long and 2.2 meters wide; with wings spread, can take off and land from aircraft-enabled points and requires a pilot’s license.
So far, the Aeromobil 4.0 ran with better luck than the previous version, which suffered a fall in auger in 2015 during a test flight. That is, it reached a certain altitude, but then it lost control.
Terrafugia’s TF-X will be ready for testing in 2018 and is expected to go on sale within eight years, according to the company. It has pull-out wings with twin electric motors attached to each end, with a power of 300 horses. These motors allow you to move from a vertical to a horizontal position. In its website, Terrafugia says that its goal is to provide a “true door-to-door transport” with a vehicle capable of being parked like a normal car.
A one-tenth scale model is being tested in the Wright Brothers wind tunnel, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“We wanted to show that some of the technologies and infrastructures that are currently being developed can make reality what was shown in the series The Supersonics, ” said Carl Dietrich, CEO of Terrafugia.
Airbus, meanwhile, designed an autonomous single-seater aircraft designed to alleviate the traffic problems of large cities. Dubbed Vahana, the design of the vehicle resembles a flattened convertible whose wings rotate to allow it to take off and land like a helicopter and fly like an airplane. It is an electric and autonomous (you do not know how to pilot to use it).
ying cars have been in science fiction for decades, now we want to make it happen,” said Jeff Holden, product manager at Elevate (Uber’s futuristic division), during a conference. In seven years, Uber wants that, when opening the application, appears the option of Uber Air so that a flying car passes for the passenger. The company’s goal is to introduce its first VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing ) vehicles in the cities of Dallas and Dubai in 2020, but predicts that its massive introduction as urban transport will not take place until 2025.
According to Uber’s plans, VTOL vehicles will have vertical take-off and landing, which minimizes the space needed to park them. The recharge points will be called “vertipuertos”, Installed on the roofs of buildings. The first cars would have human pilots, although the maximum ambition is that the driving is completely automatic.
Much of the motivation behind this project is ecological. It wants to end bottlenecks and minimize carbon dioxide emissions.
All models have in common the technology VTOL, the same that made possible the revolution of the drones. Vertical propellers allow the vehicle to reach altitude much faster and require less space. Another key part of the designs are the electric motors, much easier to manufacture and maintain than the combustion engines. Another advantage: they do not explode in case of impact. Electric motors also allow multiple asynchronous drives. If one propeller fails, the others are automatically adjusted and allow to land safely.
Part of the problem would be batteries. Current technology in this area does not allow flights from a reasonable distance, a journey of 48 to 80 kilometers.
From Google to the air
The company Kitty Hawk announced that its first flying car will be ready before the end of the year. Sebastian Thrun, the founder of the company and creator of the autonomous car of Google, shared a few days ago a video in which you can see the Kitty Hawk Flyer – a kind of watercraft with wings – in motion. The project is supported by Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet and co-founder of Google, who is investing his personal fortune to fulfill a childhood dream.
The vehicle weighs about 100 kilos and can reach speeds of 40 kilometers per hour, with a range of up to 75 kilometers. It is a device that works thanks to eight propellers driven by batteries.
The prototype was designed to fly about 10 meters above the water, but in testing on Clear Lake, Located 160 kilometers north of San Francisco, climbed just 4.5 meters.
Video: Kitty Hawk
It is not known if the final version will be the same, but the company claims that the vehicle is safe and that its use will be legal in the US, as long as it turns on empty areas. To use it you will not need to be a pilot.
Page refused to give an interview, but said the following in a statement: “We have all dreamed of flying without any effort. I am thrilled that someday, very soon, I can get on my Kitty Hawk Flyer for a quick personal flight and quiet”.
Like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Google’s other founder, is developing its own aircraft. According to Bloomberg, the “secret” project of Brin is a modern version of a zeppelin. Building it would take about three years. The prototype would function by helium, based on a mechanism of artificial lungs, And would be able to carry up to 500 tons of cargo. No details have yet been revealed of its future uses, but it is thought that it will be oriented to the transport of goods, but also of people.
That day will come
If you have been working on the subject for decades … why are not there still flying cars in sight? Humans are already bad drivers on the ground to give them a flying machine. New rules must also be established: from laws for transit and air control to new types of building construction. Perhaps the most difficult thing is to convince the public that the idea is not crazy.
When they arrive, flying cars will probably cost several hundred thousand dollars. At first they will be the replacement of the Lamborghini or the Ferrari. For the vast majority of drivers will remain a dream for many more years, although not one of science fiction.