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Flying Cars Are Not Going to Become a Reality Soon

The Asphalt Jungle

Flying cars are in the air again. That is, if you believe the mainstream media's latest round of breathless headlines ("Flying Car Companies Aim for Takeoff in 2017," gushed CNN recently) and the silly notion that a machine can be both aircraft and automobile at the same time.

Not that I don't wish it were true. I want a flying car. I also want a jet pack as user-friendly as a Honda Civic, a personal submarine that folds into a briefcase, and a world-class pepperoni pizza that reverses graying hair. And by now, damn it, I should have a flying car. I mean, ever since I was a kid, inventors, visionaries, and charlatans have been promising that "very soon" I'd be zipping around the sky in a fabulous gravity-defying pod that lifts me off from my driveway, whisks me straight to my destination, and lands me softly on a barstool. Instead, in 2015, I have a phone that talks on its own and orbiting space satellites that keep trying to beam "Duck Dynasty" into my family room.

Part of the problem is simple semantics. When most dreamers talk of "flying cars," what they really mean is "driving planes." Almost every flying car ever built—from Robert Fulton's 1946 Airphibian (an aluminum car with detachable fabric wings) to the sleek, folding-wing prototypes now being developed by Slovakian maker AeroMobil and Massachusetts-based Terrafugia—is actually a plane with a modicum of roadworthiness. You still need a runway to take off and land (not very helpful when you're trying to hop over to Madison Square Garden for the big game). Nor can you really drive your "car" once on the ground: In a crash test, a vehicle light enough to be airworthy would fare about as well as a Ming vase. Even if flying cars are able to meet government regulations, anything that flies will always be exceptionally vulnerable. In a car, a fender bender is annoying. In an aircraft, with its fragile control surfaces and mission-critical shapes, well, you're grounded.

Besides, what a flying-car hopeful really wants is something more akin to a helicopter. Vertical takeoffs and landings with no massive supporting infrastructure needed. Something along the lines of inventor Paul Moller's M400 Skycar, a four-rotor machine designed to take off straight up and then, by tilting its rotors, thrust forward like an airplane. Trouble is, after some 40 years of work and roughly $200 million of investor cash burned, the Skycar has yet to climb out of ground effect (that's a scientific term for "not even as high as Portland's Paul Bunyan statue"). Still, one can't help but admire a man who so brilliantly combines the tenacity of a carpenter ant with the chutzpah of P.T. Barnum.

Here's the saddest reality of all: Building a working flying car is the easy part. Many flying-car prototypes—from the vintage Airphibian to Terrafugia's new Transition—have indeed flown. But thus far, they've only been in the air with experienced test pilots at the controls. I spent more than eight months of intensive training and study before earning my private pilot's license, and even that only allowed me to fly relatively simple fixed-wing aircraft in good visual conditions. That's because operating a machine in three dimensions—along with potentially tens or hundreds of other machines occupying roughly the same space—is a complex affair. You're controlling not just speed and direction but altitude, too. You're in frequent radio contact with various ground controllers (and sometimes other aircraft) to maintain separation and proper position. You're constantly vigilant of the weather. And you're always monitoring a slew of systems—from navigation to fuel to engine performance—that in case of a problem can't be fixed simply by pulling to the side of the road. These are not the sort of challenges a teenager masters after a week at Ned's Thrifty Flying Car Driving School.

I'm not saying the dream is impossible. After all, mankind advanced from the first powered airplane flight to landing on the moon in just 66 years. But flying cars are not going to become a reality in 2017, or probably in 2027, for that matter. Massive advances in powerplants, flight controls, automated systems, and computer guidance will be required. Only when the world is safe from Biff and Buffy dreamily text-messaging in the cockpits of their Air Camrys will cars ever really fly.
Meanwhile, I'm betting pigs get there first.