An autonomous flying car? Really?

May 12, 2013 by Amara D. Angelica

Artist’s impression of TF-X future flying car in flight (credit: Terrafugia Inc.)

“Where’s my flying car?”

Skeptics have trashed predictions of flying cars with this annoying question ever since the Jetsons.

But now Terrafugia Inc. has announced feasibility studies of a four-seat, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) [similar to a helicopter] plug-in hybrid-electric flying car, the TF-X.

Just tell it where to go. It flies (and lands) for you — no runway needed — and then transforms into a car, says Terrafugia. It can even take off on roads.

So how real is it?

Well, Terrafugia already has some street (literally) cred with its Transition flying car, a two-place, street-legal airplane that has been heralded as the “first practical flying car,” the company claims. It’s designed to fit in a single-car garage, be safely driven on the highway, and be flown (conventionally) in and out of general aviation airports. It runs on premium unleaded automotive gasoline, and the same engine powers the propeller in flight or the rear wheels on the ground.

The company has not yet announced FAA certification or delivery dates, but it says it has more than 100 customers committed. Meanwhile, DrivenToFly.com has produced this cool video showing a lustworthy test version in action:

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Transformer (TX) solicitaton (announced April 12, 2010) is another reality check. It proposes to combine the advantages of ground vehicles and helicopters, with vertical take-off and landing, four-person payload, able to safely travel on roads for 250 nautical miles (288 conventional miles) on one tank of fuel, and be operated by a typical soldier.

Transformer (TX) concept (credit: DARPA)

So what would a TF-X autonomous flying car look like? Here’s how Terrafugia envisons it:

As YouTube commenter Glowitzer put it: “Shut up and take my money!!”

The Skycar

Meanwhile, Moller International says it has developed “the first and only feasible, personally affordable, personal vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle” — the Skycar 400. “Skycar can cruise comfortably at 275 MPH (maximum speed of 375 MPH) and achieve up to 20 miles per gallon on clean-burning, ethanol fuel.”

Skycar 400 (credit: Moller International)

It won’t be an actual roadworthy car, and not autonomous, but close. Like the TF-X, the aircraft has an automated “fly by wire” system: the pilot initially provides inputs for direction, speed, and altitude, and on-board systems interpret these inputs to do the actual flying. “Operating a Skycar … could be done by someone with little training or flight experience, but will, at least initially, require a private pilot’s license until the ease of operation and safety are thoroughly demonstrated,” the company claims.

The company also says it has done an unmanned hover demonstration flight with a prototype unit.

Moller International announced May 8 that it’s in a joint-venture discussion with Athena Technologies to produce and distribute Moller’s Skycar and Neuera “volantors,” to be partly made in China.

PAL-V ONE

And there’s PAL-V ONE, a two-seat hybrid car/gyroplane introduced in April 2012 by the Dutch company PAL-V Europe NV. On the road, it drives like a sports car and banks like a motorcycle. “For take-off, a strip of 165 meters (540 feet) is enough and it can be either paved or grass,” the company says. [H/T: Dan]

Hmmm, what happens if Google teams up with one of these companies….?

Famous flying cars

The Gyrocopter, 1935 (credit: Modern Mechanix & Inventions)

ConvairCar, 1947 (credit: Convair)

Suburban copter, 1951 (credit: Popular Mechanics)

The Jetsons animated sitcom, 1962 (credit: Hanna-Barbera)

Hiller’s Aerial Sedan, 1967 (credit: Popular Mechanics)

“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” — Doc in Back to the Future, 1985 (credit: Universal Pictures)

Moller M200X, 1989 (credit: Moller International)

The Fifth Element, 1997 (credit: Columbia Pictures)

Amara D. Angelica is Editor of KurzweilAI