Fans of classic science fiction often complain that while the technology of today is impressive, it pales in comparison with where previous generations thought we would be at this point. Sure, tablets and mobile Wi-Fi are great, but where is teleportation? What about time travel? Or at the very least, how about a flying car? Well, on that final front at least engineers are making a striking amount of progress. In fact, flying cars already exist and have for years, although probably not in the form you would expect. International aeronautics firm Terrafugia has an entire line of what they call ‘roadable’ airplanes. And they’ve got a prototype for an aircraft the size of a car almost ready for consumer use.
The prototype is called the Transition, and the goal is less ‘flying car’ and more accessible aircraft. It’s defined as a Light Sport Aircraft, which has only existed as a designation for the past eight years. The Terrafugia team has been working hard to challenge all preconceived notions of these small aircrafts, as far as who could afford them and where they can go. It can be driven on a regular road, so in that sense it matches up with the basic definitely of a flying car. But it is still an airplane for all intents and purposes. It will be required to land and take off from an airport, so forget any thoughts of easily switching from one form of transport to the other in the middle of a trip.
Competing companies are looking at the issue from the other side, attempting to make vehicles that are cars first and planes second. A company called Maverick has their own Light Sport Aircraft that looks much more like a car. And you do need both a driver’s license and pilot’s license to get behind the wheel. But the federal government looks at it as a kit car, so it may not be street legal everywhere. And the cost of such limited usage could also keep you away. As of now the Maverick sells for around $95,000. The Transition, as a fully-functioning airplane is geared towards people who want to fly for fun and not for serious commuting purposes. That vehicle will come to market towards the end of next year with a $279,000 sticker price. That’s actually very affordable for an aircraft, and Terrafugia already has around 100 deposits for their ‘flying car’.
So what sort of engineering marvels go into these futuristic vehicles? The primary issue facing the manufacturers is meeting the needs of a car and a plane all in the same package. For example, a car needs to be aerodynamic on the sides and the top, while an airplane needs to be streamlined around the entire body. A car should carry its weight low, while an airplane needs to spread its weight around evenly. The key has been lighter construction materials, which just weren’t available a decade or two ago. Terrafugia’s MIT-trained engineers have spent more than six years working those new materials in, while using next-generation computer technology to run tests that were impossible before. All told, it is a great step in the right direction.
Although it seems the Transition will begin the process of really bringing flying cars into the mainstream, there’s still the whole issue of infrastructure and regulations to contend with. If these were ever going to become prevalent, how would owners use them? Would there be two different sets of roads, or would consumers have to continue using airports? There’s also the ongoing issue of two different license requirements, and which government organization would be responsible for managing all of that data and testing. Would car insurance companies just open up additional departments for flight? Would those CheapAutoInsurance websites just tack on another subsection to your premium? The bottom line is that the technology is slowly becoming a reality, but the flying car may never resemble what we’ve seen in our favorite books and movies.