In this era of widespread talk of drones and driverless vehicles, those of us of a certain age recall how science fiction decades ago promised wondrous things. Many came true, like traveling to the moon, personal computers and the advent of almost instantaneous worldwide communications.
But one promise never actually came to pass: Where is my flying car? Recent news reveals that perhaps we just had to live long enough to see it finally come true.
Google supposedly is testing a prototype, but from the photos it looks more like a flying boat, with tires much too small for it to drive on the road.
Uber also announced plans to conquer gridlock with a program called Elevate, which wouldn’t really be a flying car but a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle. Uber says it will be ready in 10 years.
The unfulfilled promise of a flying car has a long pedigree. Patents on versions of the flying car have been filed by dreamers for more than a century.
In 1926, Henry Ford displayed an experimental model he called the “sky flivver.” He abandoned the project after it crashed, killing the pilot. Ford never gave up on the idea, and in 1940 declared, “Mark my words: A combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”
In 1956 the company came up with a flying car prototype called the Volante. But if you want to head for the skies in your very own personal vehicle in the near future, it probably won’t be in a Ford.
The Patent and Trademark Office revealed in June that Toyota had applied for a patent on a shape-morphing fuselage for an aerocar a year and a half earlier, according to Michael Jespersen and Abbi Jankowski of the law firm of Foley & Lardner.
The vehicle features a fuselage constructed from flexible frame components and a tensile skin. It is powered by a rear-mounted propeller and features an actuation system that expands the fuselage to house foldable wings when operating on land, and then contracts the fuselage after the wings are deployed to support the flight-mode aerodynamics.
According to Toyota, this improves fuel economy and visibility compared to older designs where the wings folded against the fuselage during land mode.
Before flying cars become common, regulatory hurdles must be cleared, the attorneys point out.
Another issue is finding a way to finance and build the infrastructure needed to support all of those take-offs and landings.
Other companies like Terrafugia in the United States and the AeroMobil in Slovakia have a jump on Uber and the other high tech stars like Google spinning their futuristic yarns about flying cars.
The Terrafugia TF-X model, unveiled in drawings in 2015, also uses helicopter-like rotors for liftoff and landing, which then turn to propel the vehicle through the air, much like current V/STOL aircraft such as the military’s V-22 Osprey, which has seen service in the Air Force and Marine Corps.
In June Terrafugia announced the Federal Aviation Administration approved its petition to allow the design to be certified as a Light Sport Aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight of 1,800 pounds.
AeroMobil, based in Bratislava, Slovakia, took 20 years of preparation and development before its first concept vehicle headed into the sky in 2013.
The AeroMobil vehicle features wings that fold back behind the two-seat cockpit, and is powered by a rear-mounted propeller concealed between the retracted wings when driving down the highway.
The company also decided to make room in its design for a ballistic parachute. It turned out that they added this feature none too soon. The first prototype crashed in May 2015, but the pilot who was able to deploy the parachute survived with only a minor back injury.