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Bill Gurstelle is a Contributing Editor for MAKE magazine. His most recent book is entitled Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously. You can follow Bill on his danger-quest at twitter.com/wmgurst. He is a guest Make: Online author for the month of August.


A flying car is, to many futurists and makers, the epitome of technological progress; the holy grail of personal technological achievement. A car that flies from Chicago to Fort Wayne and an airplane that one can drive to the Piggly Wiggly to pick up eggs and coffee, all in the same package — that’s what I want.

flying car illustration.jpg

We’re a clever group, so here’s an obvious question: Why is there no flying car in your garage? It’s well into the 21st century, it seems like we’ve had plenty of time to tackle this. Over the next few days, I’d like to a look at what progress (or lack thereof) various individuals and companies have been made towards realizing my dream machine. It’s a long story, and to be honest, not a particularly pretty one.

So, let’s begin considering this question with the words of recent Louisiana gubernatorial candidate Patrick Landry.

“As Governor, I shall seek investors who will bring their capital to Louisiana in an effort to design, develop, and eventually mass-produce an aeromobile. This vehicle, which would revolutionize transportation in America, would be a cross between an ultra light aircraft and an automobile. The intended purpose is to create the ability of lift-off between 55 and 75 MPH, flying at low altitudes for short distances, and conceptually, look similar to an Indy racecar.”

Unsuccessful 2003 Louisiana Gubernatorial Candidate Patrick “Live Wire” Landry

Patrick E. Landry first threw his hat into the political ring in 1999. Landry, called “Live Wire” because of his background as an electrician, claimed that among his qualifications for high office was his virginity.

Obviously, Landry was something of a fringe candidate. But his virginity, his plan to nuke Baghdad, and his Flying Car Development Platform, got him over 10,000 votes. In fact, in the 2003 governor’s race, Landry came in eighth out of seventeen candidates.

The flying car idea didn’t start with animated cartoons in the 1960s, although most baby boomers probably first imagine something like what George Jetson dropped off daughter Judy of at Orbit High in. Actually, it’s a concept that’s been in the air since airplanes were first invented.

jetsons.jpg

This is the flying car, designed by Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria in 1885. Everyone said he was nuts. But now, 120 years after his death, German scientists have shown him to be one of the unsung pioneers of flight.

ludwigs flying car.jpg

Ludwig, whose fantastical castle at Neuschwanstein aptly featured in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, drew up plans for a flying car more than two decades before the Wright brothers took to the air, but when he tried to build it he was declared insane and stripped of his crown.

Ludwig.jpg

Recently German aeronautical experts re-studied Ludwig’s designs and say they would have worked. Sketches recovered from letters between the ruler and Austrian engineer Gustav Koch show the monarch had planned to create a fleet of flying machines that would take him across his beloved Alpine lakes to his many castles, including the fairytale Neuschwanstein.

In my next article, I’ll look at a couple of attempts that came close…


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Comments

  1. jakehildebrandt.com says:

    Someday, I am going to write a big, heady, thesis paper about how the pegasus was man’s original flying “car” dream. Of course, that would probably require a lot of reading (not to mention knowledge of mythology and history), so I’ll most likely be hovering to work long before that essay gets written…

  2. RocketGuy says:

    I went there last year on vacation, and it is really interesting how much Disney ripped from it, I expected to find Peter pan in a closet somewhere.

    There was a somewhat vague history of Ludwig recounted during the tour, but none of the aviation bits were mentioned at all.

    Wonder if it’s considered too much of a detail, or too embarrassing?

  3. RocketGuy says:

    There are three serious entries from what I can see, two of which fit the “car” spec.

    Terrafugia is an admittedly oogly flying car (or as is now preferred “drivable airplane”).

    The Sampson switchblade is nicer looking, but is still in it’s embryonic stage.

    I saw both at AirVenture two weeks ago, and while it’s nice to see, neither moved me. Here’s why: Absurd pricing.

    Also expensive, but totally awesome looking is the Martin Jetpack (which is a fan pack technically, but whatever). If I had the money, I’d be signing up for that now, and commuting to work with it until I was arrested.

    The drivable airplane approach is probably more realistic, from an engineering perspective than a flying car, as the flying part is the more demanding of the two roles.

    The challenges are of engineering requirements that are somewhat at odds with one another, requiring either brilliant design, expensive materials, or both to fulfill.

    For the aircraft portion, you need mechanical power of one type, and an entirely different speed and torque for a ground drive system. It can be done with a transmission or dual power-trains, but this leads us to another challenge, weight.

    The whole thing needs to be light as possible, while also being road collision safe structurally, and drive safely too.

    Performance has to meet certain minimums as well, obviously. An underpowered car is annoying and possibly not safe on the highway, an underpowered aircraft is definitely dangerous. and useful weight for both passengers and fuel is impinged upon by the other requirements you’re fulfilling, limiting utility and range.

    But all of these are yielding to our constantly improving engineering tools and materials. So the big issue isn’t building it.

    The killer socioeconomic barrier which is proving to be much harder to break than mach:

    Safe Piloting for the masses.

    The ideal market for the flying car are those who value mobility and flexibility, but might not possess the wherewithal or commitment to be a pilot, nor are the 1% insanely rich. The new LSA rules help, but are rather limiting, and still require a lot of skill development time.

    So what can be done? A self flying aircraft is possible, but will require next generation air traffic control[ATC], as it has to be able play nice with the other bits of metal up there, without complex and expensive radar/ladar or computer vision systems.

    We’re on the edge of seeing this come about, unless the FAA really screws up over the next few years. Once next-gen ATC is up and running, the infrastructure will be in place for UAV’s as well as traditional manned aircraft to play nice, which is an infinitesimal hop to a self flying car.

    I’m currently looking to build my own plane still though, as it’s a lot cheaper, and I want to be a pilot anyway.

    Still hoping for that Jetpack someday though, when the price comes down or I win the lottery.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The reason we don’t have a flying car is because most drivers still have difficulty with two dimensions.

    Heck, many have yet to master High Beam/Low Beam…

  5. Dave says:

    I think that there are a couple of reasons why flying cars have never been developed. Some of them are engineering (e.g., materials, power plants, etc.), some of them are legal (Does it have to meet all the NHTSA/DOT/FAA rules?), some are safety (What happens if something fails?), some are operational (Where can it take-off and land?), and some are user related (I wonder what this button does?). On top of this is the litigation issue (Who gets sued.).

    The engineering issues are probably solvable. Power plants have advanced significantly over the past 100 years to the point where you can get reasonable power out of a small engine, while still maintaining reasonable life. Weight is of a concern, but modern materials allow the construction of a reasonably light weight vehicle.

    The legal aspects are considerably harder to solve (as anyone who has ever tried to import an automobile into the US surely knows(I have, successfully.); there are an incredible number of rules a vehicle has to meet before it can be imported/licensed). The same is true of aircraft. Trying to meet both sets of rules will be quite difficult if not totally impossible.

    The safety aspect deserves careful consideration. In the event that something does fail, does it mean instant death to the driver/flier and passengers? Or, is there a way of recovering? The nice thing about fixed wing aircraft is that, in the event of an engine failure, there’s a chance the pilot can glide to a landing. The same is mostly true for rotary wing aircraft, given an experienced pilot who can exploit the autogyro effect. However, for a ducted fan type of craft, there usually isn’t any recovery option.

    However, the fixed wing option poses a definite problem for operational ease. Most streets/roads/highways aren’t wide enough to support the wingspan necessary to take-off/land such a beast. While it would be possible to construct special take-off/landing strips (e.g., airports), being restricted to such would seriously limit the flexibility of the craft.

    Rotary wing craft could use a much smaller space for take-offs and landings, but would still have trouble with most streets/roads/highways, again limiting their flexibility.

    Ducted fan type of craft would be able to take off and land virtually anywhere, but the failure problems would be a major difficulty.

    In any case, user training would be problematic at best (and impossible at worst). While some automation may alleviate some of the problems, it would still be up to the users to avoid things like power lines, trees, etc. And, there are few things that frighten an experienced, low-level pilot more than wires.

    Toss in the occasional drunk flier, and you have the makings for some real disasters.

    In any case, there are sure to be injuries, everything from death and dismemberment due to stupid user actions, to power outages, to damaged landscaping, to pets being squashed by being landed on (Not to mention obnoxious kids throwing things from the open windows of the craft). The lawyers would make a fortune off the litigation.

    So, while such a combination car/plane might be an option for a unpopulated, wild country, I can’t see it being practical in a modern, civilized(?), urban landscape.

    Dave

  6. Sean says:

    Some really serious airspace blockages to this dream.

    1) Highly inefficient usage of energy.

    2) No failsafe in case of lift failure, the resulting lawsuits filed by family and ground casualties will wipe any commercial company off the map within the first five years. It’s quite doubtful than any insurance company would touch a flying car with a 100 ft pole. There’s too much to go wrong on the owner liability side.

    2/3 of the cost of a current airplane is manufacturer insurance to fend off lawsuits the equivalent of suing Ford for taking a vintage Model T on the freeway and getting smashed because you couldn’t merge with traffic. No other industry other has to deal with 30 year old engines and 50 year old airframes being a source of lawsuit action.

    3) No reliable collision avoidance combined with the direct to attitude of most people will make the current friction between fixed wing and rotor wing operations seem like a tempest in a teacup. 3D can go so wrong so quickly in so many ways and at 150mph time to react to closing speeds is beyond most drivers.

    4) Full inertial guidance and avionics for this thing will be expensive. Go get a couple aviation mags and start getting acquainted with what fully TSO’d equipment costs. You will be running the equivalent of an IFR stack at the bare minimum. You are not going to do this with WII Nunchucks.

    1. sean says:

      Garmin G600 system with Synthetic Vision starts at $30,000 but for what a flying car needs, you will need the G1000 and autopilot system which are available OEM only so I can’t really price them out, but with some of the software upgrades costing $10,000, you can start to estimate that the hardware will probably be 10 times that.

      Added to this will need to be an inertial system and vertical radar with failsafe software that will emergency land in case of systems failure and essentially fly-by-wire the thing so you don’t have to be an commercial ATP helicopter pilot to get out of your carport.

      Then there will be the collision avoidance (we don’t have yet) so you can do those “5th Element” stacked flyways that will be necessary for traffic separation. For reduction of congestion and increase in safety the separation will have to be much closer than current aircraft require and strictly enforced by your onboard flight control system.

      It’s gonna be expensive enough that you’ll have to be Paul Allen in order to afford it.

  7. Zanju says:

    Sean,

    For all of your reasons and 9-11 (Jet + fuel + whacks = disaster), Uncle Sam has been very, very difficult with Moller.com.