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The Race to Create Cost Effective Flying Cars is On!

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That dream we all had as kids, the one we tend to return to day after day as we sit in the morning commute’s endless traffic could soon be a reality—for some.

The idea of a flying car has been a popular fantasy, and a staple of science fiction, for about as long as there have been both cars and planes. After all, who wouldn’t want to look down on gridlock rather than be a part of it?

With the number of vehicles on the road only increasing, and with a finite amount of space for them all to occupy, taking to the skies in your own personal transportation makes a lot of sense. But how realistic is the world of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Blade Runner’s futuristic LA?

Start Your Engines

At this year’s Geneva motor show, Dutch start-up PAL-V introduced their answer to the challenge with the Liberty, a three-wheeled car that transforms into a gyroplane, allowing drivers to slip traffic congestion’s surly bonds.

The first commercially available flying car that meets all existing safety regulations for both land and sky, it can be driven on a standard driver’s licence and flown on a Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL). Powered by two Rotax engines, it will reach 100mph on the road, with a fuel economy of around 31mpg, while the 197bhp aero engine driving the top rotor will lift the aircraft to a maximum altitude of 3,500m, with the rear rotor providing enough thrust to give a cruising speed of 112mph and a 310 mile range.   

With initial production limited to just 90 units, at a cost of US$621,500 each, if you want one, you’d better be quick. And well off. But does it solve all the problems?

Roads? Where We’re Going…etc.

Gyroplanes, or autogyros (think Little Nellie in Bond outing You Only Live Twice), still need a runway to take off and land on. Obviously, carrying the ability to drive from there to your eventual destination with you is a major bonus, but the kid in us still demands more. 

However, creating something that can lift off from a standstill, a VTOL or Vertical Takeoff and Landing aircraft, is an entirely different matter. While a fixed wing or autogyro machine can be built and flown fairly cheaply and easily (this is all relatively speaking of course), as anyone who has gone from flying, say, a Cessna 152 two-seater aeroplane to a Robinson R22 helicopter will tell you, there is nothing simple or cheap about it. Owning and operating VTOL aircraft is both ruinously expensive and extremely tricky, requiring highly advanced training. Not to mention very few of the average private helicopter owner’s neighbours are best friends. The amount of power they need to generate lift produces deafening noise levels.

Getting Over the Problems

The many pitfalls haven’t dissuaded a number of companies from taking on the challenge though. Two standouts at the moment are Slovakian firm AeroMobil and the Chinese-owned corporation Terrafugia. Both already have non-VTOL aircraft in development; the AeroMobil 4.0 STOL due to roll out in less than two years, and the Transition from Terrafugia, described as more of a ‘roadable’ plane than a flying car. 

AeroMobil 4.0

Now, both are deep into true ‘door-to-door’ transportation territory, with next generation machines that require not only no runway, but also no pilot.

The AeroMobil 5.0 VTOL and the Terrafugia TF-X are both computer-controlled autonomous aircraft, capable of carrying up to four passengers and taking off from a standing start. Although in the concept stage at the moment, estimates put each machine at less than a decade away from going into service.

Terrafugia TX

But what about the cost? We already know this sort of technology is not going to be cheap, so will the future of flying cars be the sole preserve of the super rich?

If the asking price of buying a machine outright puts it out of reach of the 99%, maybe the answer to taking to the skies lies in an airborne cab service.    

Ridesharing conglomerate UBER is working with NASA and plans to start testing its Elevate air taxi project in Dallas Fort Worth, LA and Dubai by 2020. A network of small, piloted, electric VTOL aircraft will crisscross each city, landing and taking off from so-called Vertiports situated on top of parking garages, existing helipads or, theoretically, anywhere with a flat surface.

This idea of aviation on demand has also been adopted by company Kitty Hawk with their creation, the Cora. With the backing of Google CEO Larry Page, Kitty Hawk has now partnered with New Zealand’s Zephyr Airworks to start their next phase of evolution.

The Cora is completely autonomous and all-electric, something that will help with NZ’s zero emissions commitment by 2050. Although no concrete timeline has been announced for the self-piloting taxi service, we could be seeing Cora overhead in as little as five years.

The Future of Flying Cars

We may still be a good way from a truly affordable flying car for the masses, but the movement certainly seems to be going in the right direction. As drones and air taxis become a more routine part of our everyday lives, the technology will progress leaps and bounds. It is sometimes easy to forget, after all, the first ever powered flight was little more than 100 years ago. 

Until then we can maybe take solace in the fact that all the terrible drivers we contend with on the roads every day are not going to be suddenly transported into the skies above us!

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