Every year, around this time, someone somewhere says: “Another year gone and still no flying cars.” This time it was a comic strip in Sunday’s Washington Post. After all this time, it seems having an aeroplane in every garage is still a yardstick of technological progress. And it remains an unfulfilled dream. There have been many attempts over the years, but the results have not been good aeroplanes or good automobiles. There’s quite a good recap of past efforts on howstuffworks. But take anything you read on current flying-car projects with a healthy pinch of salt.
The outfit getting most of the ink these days is Terrafugia. It go a writeup as recently as October in the MIT Technology Review. But then the company was formed by a bunch of ex-MIT folks. So far Terrafugia has raised some money, flown a radio-controlled scale model and made some cool graphics (check out the video). It says it will fly a proof-of concept vehicle in 2008.
Terrafugia’s Transition is basically a roadable aeroplane, rather than a flyable automobile, but what it promises to be that previous designs were not is a successful “transformer” – able to switch between aero- and auto- mode without the need to attach or detach things. Terrafugia also aims to get the Transition approved as a light sport aircraft, making learning to fly easier for mere drivers.
But the Transition is still an aircraft. Pilots might buy one for the fun of driving home from the airport without changing vehicles, but it is not going to put an aeroplane in every garage. More technological progress than a neat folding wing is needed for that to happen. And it may come from the unmanned aircraft sector. The technology that will allow UAVs to mix safely with manned aircraft in civilian airspace could allow auto/aeroplanes to take off from streets and land in office carparks. In fact, I might feel safer in an automated air taxi than in one with a pilot!