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Can the flying car ever become a reality?

Here are several concepts to detail a brief history of car-based flight

  1. Oi. Bring back my weekly digest of wedge-shaped Italian exotica.

    Hey – if you really just want to ogle pictures of wedges with famous designers, may we suggest clicking here?

    Still with us? Phew. It was touch and go there for a second. So, in the gentle, utopian world of future speculation, we envisage the flying car. See Uber’s vision in the pic above. 

    Let’s set aside the fact that any sort of levitating automobile will likely only result in that wonderful aerial scene from The Fifth Element – minus Milla Jovovich – and concentrate more on the futurologists’ lament: ‘Where, exactly, is my flying car?’

  2. You’ve already lost me. What are we talking about here?

    Why, flying cars, of course!

    Humanity’s introduction to personal aerial mobility is quite a bit older than you might think. In fact, it was none other than known yesteryearian Henry Ford (the first one) who created the Ford Flivver aircraft in the mid 1920s. Any of you who’ve read Brave New World might be in the midst of deja vu by now. 

    After the runaway success of the Model T (you may have heard of it), Mr Ford decided to recreate the effect of his most famous car – this time in the sky.

    Now, you’ll notice that, at first glance, the only thing that even vaguely links the Flivver to a car as we know it is the rather large ‘Ford’ painted down the side. Well, that’s both true and untrue. Think about how new the concept of personal motorised transport was back in the 1920s – it had only just been democratised by Henry Ford’s company. If the car was a nascent, rapidly evolving technology, why would the concept of airborne personal motorised transport be outside the realms of possibility? 

    The gist of the Ford Flivver was that it’d serve as a single-seat aeroplane, pitched squarely at the ‘everyman’– in that it was easy to buy, run and store – and the story goes that Henry himself insisted that it “fit in his office”. It’s a noble concept, as were so many in the optimistic days after the Great War. 

    However, there’s a very good reason you can’t go on to Autotrader and pick up a second-hand Ford Flivver MkIV “with three months’ MOT and the major service just done.” And it’s not because using and maintaining an aircraft is in a different league compared to a car. It’s not because it just didn’t catch on as a concept, either. 

    It is, and there’s no way to put this gently, that testing involved one too many crash-related deaths for Henry Ford to pursue the dream of personal aerial transport any further. 

    But, like cockroaches, the idea of the flying car just doesn’t seem to die. It’s waxed and waned in popularity over the past nine decades or so, but it must be said that we’re currently living through an especially waxy bit.

  3. How so?

    Chances are you’ve heard of carbon fibre. But did you know that the process to make it was originally patented by the British Ministry of Defence? Of course, it’s come quite a long way in the 50 years hence, and now, apart from making Ferrari key fobs and Bentley-branded cooktops, it’s seeing use in the new breed of flying cars like the AeroMobil.

    Makes sense, doesn’t it? A lightweight and strong fuselage and empennage (got to use the lingo) means a flying car needs less energy and distance to take off – fundamental limitations for any airborne craft. And the increasing affordability of carbon fibre means the business case for making entire cars (of the terrestrial and aerial variety) out of the stuff is getting better all the time.

    Image is of an AeroMobil Sky Car

  4. Time to get excited, then?

    Well, think about how far technology has come in every regard – tyres, brakes, engines and processing power, to name a few. We’re at a point in time where the concept of an engine with 300bhp per litre is not outside the bounds of reality. Or, if you’ve ever heard of LiquidPiston, you’ll note that we’re on the cusp of ridiculously lightweight engines that’ll run on any form of dino-juice you care to use.

    The boffins there are already testing (in a go-kart, because why not?) a new type of rotary engine that fits in your hand, and weighs the same as a largish bag of rice, but has three horsepower. Now, three’s not a lot these days, but LiquidPiston has plans to trim the weight to less than 1.5kg and boost the power to five horsepower. And imagine scaling that up.

    Image is of a Lilium Jet

  5. So, what’s the hold up?

    Well, making flying cars work is a) expensive, b) difficult and c) fraught with legal and safety issues. And these tend to be rather large impediments.

    Helpfully, there’s an analogue for flying cars that’ll help explain the flying car’s current predicament – self-driving cars. They’ve taken years and countless millions of pounds, dollars and euros to bring to an almost market-ready state, but we’re still not getting driven to work by our cars. And, before they do begin chauffeuring us about, there’s a heap of issues to sort out – will we need licences to get in one, or special training to react if something goes wrong? And what happens if they crash? 

    Now, take these concerns and multiply them by an extra eight or so miles of useable airspace above our heads. 

    Image is of a Volocopter

  6. Oooh. That is actually concerning.

    Indeed. It’s bad enough if you crash a car, which – in normal operation – can really only be controlled in two dimensions. Now imagine tasking regular drivers with an extra dimension and all that entails. Pitch, roll, yaw, angle of attack… surely, flying car owners would need special licences and training to ever hope to control their new flying machines. And now think about your last road trip. Just how on the ball were the majority of your fellow travellers?

    Then there’s the question of where, exactly, you take off and land. Unless future flying cars have VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) capabilities - like AeroMobil’s latest concept, the 5.0 - there’s going to have to be a runway somewhere, unless you’re happy with people taking off at random along the M1. 

    And what about cities? Are you entirely comfortable with flying cars buzzing in between skyscrapers and tower blocks? 

    Image is of a Terrafugia TF-X

  7. Wait. So are these things happening or not?

    Well yes. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that we don’t find a way to do it eventually. Yes, we’ve had to accept certain crushing defeats over the course of humanity’s march toward the future – alchemy’s quest to turn lead into gold, for instance – but the flying car is inherently possible. Just as we’ve sorted out a way not to crash into everything we come across. 

    Come to think of it, self-flying cars might be the answer…

    Image is of the AeroMobil Sky Car again. Because it’s awesome

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