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7/26/2006
01:50 PM
Mike Elgan
Mike Elgan
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The Myth Of The 'Flying Car'

It's the fantasy of every frustrated driver who's ever been caught in traffic: to push a button, take off, and soar above the gridlock like an airplane. But don't hold your breath. You'll never "drive" a "flying car."

It's the fantasy of every frustrated driver who's ever been caught in traffic: to push a button, take off, and soar above the gridlock like an airplane. But don't hold your breath. You'll never "drive" a "flying car."There are many "flying car" projects in the works -- at least three of them are on display at the giant AirVenture Oshkosh air show this week. Invariably, the mainstream press and the tech blogs describe these vehicles, which fly like airplanes but can be driven like cars, as "flying cars" that will replace conventional cars for everyday use by the public.

The "flying car" is a dream that has persisted for decades. It's one of those technological advancements that is always just around the corner.

The "flying car" concept in the popular imagination has three elements:

1. You use it like a car, parking it in your driveway and using it for a fast and easy commute to work.

2. You take off and land wherever you like.

3. You don't need to be a pilot, because it's not an airplane. It's just a "flying car."

Here are some of the current "flying car" projects:

Moller Skycar

LaBiche Aerospace FSC-1 Terrafugia Transition

Volante Flying Car

Waterman Aerobile

These look awesome, right? (Especially the first three). Here's the problem: There's no such thing as a "flying car."

Anything powered by a motor or engine that flies with the use of fixed wings is an airplane. It doesn't matter if the wings fold up or if its wheels can be turned by the vehicle's engine. It's still an airplane, subject to the laws of physics, the realities of weather and the need to get from point A to point B without getting lost, crashing into another airplane or losing control due to unpredictable moving air.

What that means is that any "flying car" could safely be flown only by a trained pilot following all the existing rules and standards governing regular airplanes -- including takeoffs and landings from airports only, flying in approved airspaces only, performing all pre-flight actions that pilots perform, including navigational planning, weather planning and running through a complete checklist before takeoff. In fact, these vehicles would require more than just a private pilot's license, because they're inherently more complex than basic, general aviation aircraft. You would at minimum need a private pilot certificate and some kind "flying car" endorsement from a flight instructor after specialized training.

If all this isn't yet obvious, indulge me in a hypothetical scenario. Let's say you gave five "flying cars" to five well-educated but non-pilot drivers with perfect driving records and said, "have fun!"

The first driver would take off from the freeway but, after liftoff, would suddenly crash back to the freeway, killing himself and six girl scouts in the minivan he landed on. He wouldn't have understood that his airspeed was just enough to get the wheels off the ground, but insufficient for flying above "ground effect."

The second driver would take off, and five minutes into his flight would suddenly find himself with zero visibility in a dense cloud cover. He wouldn't be able to tell which way is up and which way is down, and would slam his "flying car" full speed into the ground under the misconception that he was straight and level.

The third driver would suddenly find himself totally lost, unable to find a safe place to land. He would end up trying to land on some random road, crash into power lines and die.

The fourth driver would inadvertently fly into Class B airspace, crash into a fully loaded 747 coming in for a landing and kill himself, plus a planeload of commercial airline passengers.

The fifth driver would be immediately flipped over by crosswinds upon takeoff and die on impact.

Flying safely requires training, experience and full participation in the existing air traffic control system. Just because a company builds an airplane with folding wings doesn't change that.

"So what?," you say. So you'd need to get a pilot's license and special certification, take off and land from airports, obey all rules, laws and employ all the "best practices" of standard aviation. Doing all that would be totally worth the joy and freedom of owning your own "flying car," right?

Think about it. What you'd end up with would be a bad airplane (expensive, clunky, heavy, poorly performing) and a bad car (non-aerodynamic, poor handling, loaded with extra "stuff") that you could drive from one airport to another. What's so great about that? If you're a pilot and you have a machine that flies, wouldn't it be better to fly from one airport to another?

If you want to commute by air, it would be cheaper to buy two cars (one for each round trip to and from the airport on either end) and one regular airplane than it would to buy one "flying car." Both the driving and the flying would be faster, better, more comfortable and more economical.

In the aviation community, the vehicles the press and some manufacterers call "flying cars" are called "roadable airplanes." They're airplanes that are easier to transport by road than regular airplanes. There are good uses for these airplanes, and the technology behind them is very cool. But "roadable airplanes" are not the "flying cars" imagined by the public.

The only way "flying cars" (operated by non-pilots and flying outside the existing air traffic control system) could come to fruition is if they were completely computer controlled by some massive, centralized system that knew the location -- and controled every movement -- of every "flying car" aloft. But turning over control to a computer system that would line everyone up into traffic jams in the sky doesn't really live up to the "flying car" vision of total freedom, either. And, in any event, this kind of system is pure science fiction. It's decades away, at best. We're not even close to having that kind of central control for cars -- controlling "flying cars" like that would be far, far more difficult and expensive, and the demand for it is much lower.

So fellow journalists and bloggers: Please! Let's not hype "flying cars" as the transportation paradise of the near future that will liberate the masses from traffic jams. It's just not going to happen!

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