Why Won’t the Dream of a Flying Car Die?

From the PAL-V Liberty to Airbus’ and Uber’s plans for flying taxis, could this be the year of the flying car?

A 1954 issue of Mechanix Illustrated predicted that we'd all be using flying saucers by 1965.

A 1954 issue of Mechanix Illustrated predicted that we’d all be using flying saucers by 1965.

Even on the cusp of a revolution in transportation brought about by self-driving vehicles, the flying car remains the benchmark for truly futuristic transportation.

Despite the failure of his experiment with the Ford Flivver in 1927, Henry Ford famously predicted that “[A] combination of airplane and motorcar is coming.”

Ford’s dream of a flying car has endured through every decade since, with many people impatiently wondering when they’ll get their own piece of the open skies.

Obviously, making that dream a reality presents considerable engineering challenges.

But in 2017, with the recent launch of the world’s first commercially available flying car—the PAL-V Liberty—and various experiments with aerial transport via autonomous flying drones, is the dream of flying cars finally coming true?

The PAL-V Liberty

Recently made available to the public, the PAL-V Liberty overcomes many of the engineering challenges that have plagued the development of personal flying cars, such as an adequate power to weight ratio and efficiently storing and transferring power from the drive to flight systems.

Built with lightweight carbon fiber, steel and aluminum components and powered by a 230HP Rotax engine, the PAL-V weighs in at just 1,500lbs, giving it a power to weight ratio that lets it lift off the ground with just 540 feet of runway.

Based on a gyrocopter design, the PAL-V also solves the historical problem of extended wings or blades taking up too much space that made previous attempts cumbersome or even dangerous for travel on the ground. It does this by putting a twist on the gyrocopter, with rotor blades that can be collapsed and tucked away in the rear of the vehicle during ground travel and extended for air travel–a process that takes about five to 10 minutes according to the manufacturer.

(Image courtesy of PAL-V.)

(Image courtesy of PAL-V.)

Still, the PAL-V Liberty doesn’t overcome all the challenges faced by flying cars. For one, there’s the cost: the price of the PAL-V Liberty base model is USD $399,000. Even with a payment plan available, that’s hardly within the reach of your average middle-class citizen.

A bigger issue comes from the restrictions around flying the vehicle. According to PAL-V, operators of the flying cars need to have a sport pilot’s license and do a pre-flight checklist inspection before heading to a local airport, airstrip or a piece of private rural land to take flight. The helicopter-like noise, danger from spinning blades and space required for takeoff – along with FAA regulations–make taking off from a roadway not just hazardous, but illegal.

Engineering a Flying Car

There are some engineering challenges not solved by the PAL-V that stand in the way of realizing a Jetson-esque vision of the flying car–in which any George or Jane can walk out the door, hop into their car and go speeding off above the city.

To make that happen, a flying car would have to be:

  • Capable of vertical takeoff
  • Quiet enough not to break noise bylaws
  • Made with a balance of affordability and safety

Enter Airbus and its plans to create an autonomous urban flying transportation platform aimed at individual passengers and cargo transport. The motivation for this project comes from some grim statistics: by 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population will reside in cities, with the resulting traffic jams potentially costing $31 billion in lost productivity.

That’s why Airbus has charged its A3 innovation incubator with developing Vahana, a flying car designed for the masses.

(Image courtesy of Airbus.)

(Image courtesy of Airbus.)

According to A3 project leader, Ryan Lyasoff, such a self-piloting aerial transport system could become a reality sooner rather than later. “Many of the technologies needed, such as batteries, motors and avionics are most of the way there,” he said, with the caveat that the “sense-and avoid” technology used in autonomous cars, still has some ways to go when it comes to aerial applications.

“That’s one of the bigger challenges we aim to resolve as soon as possible,” he noted.

Another hurdle to overcome for such an experimental system is how and where to field test it, when it’s unlikely any major city would want to assume the risk involved. Despite these challenges, Lyasoff believes his company could have revolutionary urban travel products on the market within 10 years.

More Flying Cars

There are numerous other personal flying vehicles in various stages of development, testing and deployment, such as the Volocopter, and  Lillium’s personal home aircraft. While not exactly a car, the latter has the potential to solve many of the problems faced in the past by personal aircraft.

This includes a takeoff area of just 50 by 50 feet and flight speeds of nearly 250 miles per hour, thanks to a combination of helicopter and fixed wing designs–both of which aim to avoid the restrictions of having to take off from an airfield. Ducted fan engines also keep the noise down during takeoff and landing, while batteries, engines and controller redundancies should make the Lillium safer than helicopters.

(Image courtesy of Lillium.)

(Image courtesy of Lillium.)

The prototype is designed to recharge by simply plugging it into your standard household outlet, with a battery range of about 300 miles. As of last summer, the company was still testing a half-sized prototype of the machine, with stated plans to begin production of a vehicle with “significantly lower running costs,” than similar products on the market.  

Should it get off the ground, Lillium customers will still require a pilot’s license to operate the vehicle, and initially the intended usage will only be for recreation in daytime and good weather conditions. Due to things like FAA regulations and the obvious dangers of having millions of these flying around in cities—much like the PAL-V—the Lillium will most likely be relegated to flights outside urban areas.

Flying Taxis

Even if Lyasoff is right and there’s good reason to be optimistic on the engineering side of personal flying cars, the majority of challenges remain in the realms of safety, regulations and economics.

These issues might be enough to doubt that the vision of a hitting the open skies in a personal flying car will ever be realized.

With that in mind, many companies are working on autonomous flying vehicles that are networked to provide mass public transit or taxi-like services.

(Image courtesy of Uber.)

(Image courtesy of Uber.)

One example of this is Uber’s Elevate project, which aims build an aerial version of its current ride-sharing system. Uber plans to operate fixed-wing, tilt-rotor autonomous aircraft that launch like helicopters from pads and then tilt their propellers for more efficient aerial travel. As with Airbus’ Vahana, the actual engineering is less of a problem than overcoming the massive pile of regulatory and infrastructure-related challenges faced by such a vehicle.

Another similar project, which seems to be perhaps the most promising due to the support it has from government, is Dubai’s autonomous aerial taxi service. Planned for launch this summer, the service will use the Chinese-made Ehang 184 autonomous flying drone, which can travel up to 689 feet off the ground with a range of 31 miles before its battery is exhausted. Even though the drones can carry only one person of up to 260lbs (plus a small suitcase), Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority sees it as a potential solution to the city’s massive traffic jam problem – and is fully backing the project.

Dude, Where’s My Flying Car?

More than ever, it seems like Henry Ford’s prediction may finally be coming true. Personal flying cars are commercially available today, even if their price tag is a bit steep.

The Moller Skycar has been in development for over half a century. (Image courtesy of Moller International.)

The Moller Skycar has been in development for over half a century. (Image courtesy of Moller International.)

Nevertheless, flying cars are still mostly a novelty for the select few people who can afford to buy them, and aerial safety regulations are still a major issue. It seems the best the average person can hope for at this point is that one of the mass-transit systems in the works will pan out.

Then maybe we can get started on those meals in pill form.

What’s your favorite flying car design? Share your thoughts in the comments below.