6 July 2010

Flying Cars

An update

Originally published in Issue 5.

Here we are half a decade into the 21st century and still no flying cars. We know there are powerful interests to overcome—gravity, for one thing, and all those people making money on our baroque transport system. The Portland Cement Association, not to mention the Mob, rake it in pouring ribbons of concrete. The automakers who killed the electric car probably wouldn’t mind sparing a bullet for a car that flies, while Boeing, Airbus, and the airlines are unlikely to give up their investment in the self-propelled cargo units euphemistically known as passenger planes.

But history, technology, and the earth itself are on the side of the flying car. The highway systems of the world are up to a century old, as is the basic architecture of person driving car on rubber wheels over hard-surfaced road. The technology for driverless or robot cars, able to keep their distance from others and play nice on the roads, already exists, but the historical and regulatory baggage of the land car won’t let it happen.

Meanwhile our whole approach to air travel has become Kafkaesque. Massive taxation supports major airports while only government largesse—in the form of everything from indemnification to outright cash—keeps the passenger jets in the air. And these jets are the only thing worse for the environment than driving a car, putting out 50 percent more carbon dioxide per passenger and leaving earth-warming contrails besides. Of course the airliner is also the weapon of choice for today’s discerning terrorist, owing to its great mass and highly explosive nature.

Twenty-first-century vehicles need a 21st-century system engineered properly to assign risk and distribute benefits. Plans are already afoot at such serious places as the FAA and NASA to develop a fully automated airborne road network called HITS, the Highway in the Sky, designed to make flying much easier and more accessible. Flying cars will be kept safely apart and guided to their destinations using Global Positioning satellites and onboard inertial and navigational sensors. The driver could follow a virtual roadway on a digital display, but really the car could make do quite nicely without the driver. Flying cars would travel at 1000- foot intervals, from 8,000 to 18,000 feet, each “lane” accommodating a given speed. Perhaps even a special lane for necking. The system would necessitate a smartly designed cockpit with computer screens in place of the cold war–era dials now common. It is precisely the kind of complete system that the current highway arrangement can’t produce because of its historical baggage.


Flying cars come in two types. Vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) cars were originally to be adaptations of the helicopter. But the high-speed rotors on helicopters are too likely to slice someone’s head off, given day to day use, and anyway your average chopper is just too delicate and complex to be used daily. So while the helicopter will always remain ideal for reporting on land-car traffic jams, spiriting victims of land-car crashes to the hospital, and filming land-car thieves for sensationalist television broadcasts, it will never become the Chevrolet of the future.

In the past decade, two other VTOL designs have begun to look feasible. They are perfect foils: one from an Israeli company with a sober business plan and links to heavy hitters in the aerospace industry and military, the other a West Coast company headed by Paul Moller, whose other interests include a company that sells “life extension” almond butter.

Urban Aeronautics, based in Tel Aviv, has been developing a concept first explored by the US military in the 1950s. And the design for their X-Hawk is only modestly more inspiring than a Merkava tank—it’s similar to a 1960 De Soto but not so pretty. Usually shown in banana yellow, the X-Hawk is essentially two eight-foot fans set horizontally with the payload on a flat sled in between.

You can literally step from the 25th-floor into your X-Hawk, just don’t look down. Initial plans are for rescue and combat operations in close urban environments, and the company has already made a sale to an Israeli hospital. They predict the X-Hawk will enter the personal vehicle market within twenty years.

If the world wants a flying penis car, on the other hand, Paul Moller’s M400 Skycar is it. Colored bordello red, the Skycar has seating for two in a fuselage that owes a good deal to the Jaguar XKE. Unlike the Jag, however, it will lift off vertically and cruise at 275 miles an hour using four fans powered by a total of eight Wankle engines. Of course, it will cost you, and for the moment, while it awaits approval from the FAA, theSkycar can be seen in Los Angeles hanging, motor running, from a crane.


The convertible flying car is an easier (if less exciting) solution than the VTOL, as evidenced by the fact that several have made it into the air, the first in 1921. In its most basic form, the convertible is little more than an airplane with folding wings and a means to shift power from the propeller to a set of drive wheels.

The LaBiche Aerospace FSC-1TM will convert from a car to a plane at the touch of a button and be easy to fly. The plan is to sell it as a kit-car for $175,000, but for that you get a 180-mile-an-hour Corvette that seats up to five and flies. Unlike most convertibles, this one looks like a sports car, rather than an airplane, when it’s on the road. It has wings that fold and then sweep in underneath the car body, a tail configuration that folds into a rear spoiler, and a small wing that folds into the hood. The little wing in front is known as a canard-wing, though precisely how these complex folding mechanisms will operate, and how their weight will be held aloft, remains to be seen. Perhaps they have the other meaning of canard in mind.

In the race for the first viable convertible, though, I’d put my money on the boy genius from MIT, Carl Dietrich. He’s obviously smart because he named his company in Latin: Terrafugia (“escape from land”). His car, the Transition, looks more likely than the others to become a reality because it has the basic architecture of a small plane, modified to work on the road. The wings fold up neat as a sea gull’s at the push of a button. When extended, the wings make for quite a blind spot, and door dings might cause serious aerodynamic problems. But there’s a lot less origami going on than in the LaBiche, and the simplest solution is usually the best.

With any of these convertibles, if you start at Penn Station, you can have it airborne by Times Square (about six blocks, or1,500 feet), assuming you make all the lights. In the near term, convertible planes will rely on the existing infrastructure for general aviation—the thousands of small airports dotting the landscape. As for the flight itself, the Transition cruises at 120 mph, and gets 30 miles per gallon in the air, 40 on the highway. Best of all in my book, it’s the size of a ’57 Buick and sports honest-to-goodness functional tailfins.

Will either flying car configuration save the planet from global warming? Will flying cars save on oil? In the short term, certainly not. In the short term, anthropogenic climate change is here. All we can do now is lop a little off peak greenhouse gas levels and apologize to our children.

But a flying car enthusiast should be in it for the long term. Early adopters may get their cars in a decade or two, just as wealthy gents toyed with the land car in the first decade of its existence. But any change, even a simple one like improving the average fuel economy of the world vehicle fleet, will take a generation at least. The flying car, by contrast, is the perfect jujitsu move: it uses the momentum built up over a century of ever greater mobility to break the stranglehold. You’ll get even more mobility with your flying car, but you’ll also get a second chance to decide how mobility should fit into daily life. The land car and road were young once, impressionable, educable. Today they are mature and set in their ways, having been shaped by a century of use. A system of mobility based on the flying car, on the other hand, is young indeed—still a twinkle in the eye. The trick will be raising it well, making it suitable for this new century and beyond. In this age of limits, perhaps we will fly much less than we ever drove, perhaps jet travel will become a thing of the past, or perhaps we will find a way to power our flight that is not so environmentally harmful. Whatever the future holds, the flying car at least gives us a chance to shape it anew.


All right, you say, ok, but where is my Jetsons car? That thing can stop on a dime, drop the children off while hovering silently above the schoolyard, and then when George arrives at Spacely Sprockets for work it folds into a briefcase, no parking space required. The only noise it makes is a pleasant bubbling whoosh.

The careful observer will notice that The Jetsons is a cartoon. Still, let’s look at the technology. Three forces shape the universe: the electromagnetic force, the strong force, and gravity. In the 19th century, scientists uncovered the secrets of the electromagnetic force and learned to manipulate it. In the 20th century, we unlocked the atom and ka-boom. If the present trend continues, we should be able to ferret out the secrets of gravity in this, the 21st century. To the discovery of the electron and the relationship between mass and energy (E=mc2), high school textbooks will one day add the discovery of the graviton, the mechanism by which the earth keeps us down. Although not yet discovered in the strictest sense, physicists have already predicted its existence. As the theory of relativity shows, you cannot discover anything until you know what you are looking for. The Jetsons’ cars clearly operate by manipulating gravitons— a simple matter a century from now.


Most important of all, flying cars will rid us of the roads themselves.

Once upon a time, the road was a multifunctional social space: when not being used for transport, it served as a marketplace or recreation site. In those days, say the high Middle Ages, transportation mostly meant walking; the system was so efficient that there was no such thing as traffic congestion.

Today roads are for transport only; using them casually for some other purpose can be deadly. The trouble is, everyone wants to use the roads at once. At certain times in certain places, they are filled beyond capacity. At other times, which is most of the time, roads don’t have a single vehicle on them. So there they sit, day and night, wasting space, making heat islands out of cities and interrupting the natural flow of rainwater into the ground. Landscape ecologist Richard Forman at Harvard estimates that the ecological effects of one road can extend an average of 300 meters on either side of it and slice up an entire ecosystem. By this calculus, roads affect a third of the land in the continental US. Roadkill isn’t just what’s for dinner anymore; it’s symbolic of the massive harm roads do merely by being roads.

Added to the fixed environmental cost is the ongoing environmental cost associated with land-car use. Tanker spills are the big newsmakers in water pollution, but more toxins reach our waters drop by drop out of that loose oil plug or the radiator you meant to have fixed. Rubber tires don’t grow on trees anymore: they too are made of oil. Did you ever wonder where your tire tread goes after it leaves your tire? Rain sloughs all that oil into the storm drains and ultimately into the oceans.

Soon this will be over; soon we will fly. Will the roads become obsolete overnight? Certainly not; we’ll always need a place to ride our bicycles. But the massive motorways will be the first to atrophy, and eventually the third of the nation used up by land cars can be reallocated to living. It may be hard to imagine a world of flying cars, involving as it does a wholesale reworking of transportation and land-use patterns. But the automobile once reshaped the world in revolutionary ways, and nothing lasts forever.

Image: The Terrafugia Transition's first flight, March 18, 2009, Plattsburgh, NY. From Terrafugia.com.

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