The Flying Car

My electronic mailbag recently included yet another pitch for a “flying car.” If, in the last 60 years or so, you’ve read more than a few sequential issues of Popular Science, you know what I’m talking about. These contraptions appear on the cover of guy, tool-tinkering magazines about as often as Britney Spears gets top billing at People. (And no, I never thought I’d have occasion to include Britney in my blog. But maybe my Google hits will soar.)

Blade Runner, Jetsons cartoons, and “Welcome to Tomorrow” exhibits at world’s fairs and Disney theme parks aside, the honor of inventing the car/airplane hybrid usually goes to Moulton (Molt) B. Taylor. He created the AEROCAR in 1949. (The first patent for a drive-fly vehicle seems to belong to Felix Longobardi, who proposed the idea in 1918.)

Taylor’s design apparently had something of Robert E. Fulton, Jr.’s “Airphibian” in its genes. It worked, after a fashion, but Taylor spent the rest of his life trying to persuade someone to mass-produce it. When I was the editor of the Western Flyer (now the General Aviation News) in the mid-1980s, Taylor called me about once a month. While I held the phone a safe distance from my ear, Molt declaimed against the airspace-grabbing FAA, short-sighted manufacturers, and all the other obstacles that had kept him from filling the skies (and roads) with Aerocars. You can read an affectionate and detailed telling of Molt’s story in A Drive in the Clouds by Jake Schultz. Or talk to my friend Hal Bryan, who knows more about–and revels in–odd aircraft more than anyone I’ve known, except maybe Pete Bowers.

Anyway, Taylor’s dream lives on in the sporty AEROCAR 2000 and in many other space-age designs, including the Skycar (Moller International) and the subject of that recent email, the Transition from Terrafugia. The latter machine is billed as a “roadable Light-Sport Aircraft.” According to Terrafugia’s Web site, the company includes graduates of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. At present, the Transition seems to exist as a CG model and as a virtual airplane that flies in the X-Plane flight simulation.

Now, I’m hardly qualified to pass judgment on the technical merits of any of these designs. Something like the Transition, designed to do its flying between airports and then drive to and from home, may become a practical solution for recreational pilots and even some commuters.

But no matter how much razzle-dazzle technology is brought into these machines, I remain a skeptic about them becoming more than curiosities, because the fundamental obstacles to their development and wide adoption aren’t technological.

The core problem, which rarely seems to come up in breezy news reports (here’s a typical example; another gushy account is here) about the inventors and their machines, isn’t developing a collision-avoidance system or computerized controls that make the vehicles as easy to fly as a car is to drive. No, the fundamental issues are societal, political, and regulatory. And they’re much more serious than the “auto-mobiles will frighten the horses” alarms of the early 20th century.

First, who is going to certify the machines and their operators and supervise maintenance? Granted, airphibian pilots of the future may not need as much training as today’s private pilots, but driver’s ed won’t suffice, either. The FAA can barely keep up with today’s air transportation system (about 600,000 aviators hold pilot certificates in the U.S.; some 240,000 civil aircraft ply our skies)–supervising flight schools, maintenance facilities, and manufacturers; regulating pilots and mechanics; running the ATC system; overseeing the airlines; etc. Witness the FAA funding debate.

image More important, absent a major overhaul of the FAA regulations and ATC system, how would thousands of new hybrid air-ground vehicles fit into existing airspace? Urban areas lie beneath complex mazes of FAA-regulated airspace designed to ensure the safe and efficient flow of aircraft. If you were to own a snazzy Skycar, you couldn’t just buzz around at will, especially over “congested areas” (see, e.g., FAR 91.119).

Airports already contend with complaints over noise and concerns about safety. In Seattle, one tony neighborhood wages a perennial battle against Children’s Hospital in part because the medical center’s helipads allow too many annoying rotorcraft to fly in at all hours of the day and night–even if they are transporting critically ill children. Imagine the furor if scores of personal air vehicles buzzed randomly overhead, taking shortcuts from home to work.

Even spectacular accidents like the recent I-5 pileup in LA are largely confined to roads and highways. Recall what happens today when an airplane crashes in a populated area (despite the frantic coverage that typically ensues, such accidents are occasional events that rarely harm people on the ground) and then imagine the hysteria if aerial flivvers plop into neighborhoods, schools, and shopping centers as often as cars break down and entangle themselves on the roads. And let’s not get into how aerial commuters would avoid conflicts with airliners.

If aircraft/automobile hybrids are limited to aerial operations at existing airports, their utility quickly evaporates, especially in the crowded urban environments where they’re most often promoted as machines to escape terrestrial traffic jams. Close-in airports are rare; those that do exist (e.g., Boeing Field in Seattle), are busy, complicated places.

Other issues abound: Could such new vehicles operate safely in inclement weather? If, for example, the Transition is indeed certificated as a light sport aircraft, it can fly only during the day (to operate a light sport aircraft at night, the pilot must hold at least a private pilot certificate) and only in Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC).

And how would these hybrid aircraft and their operators handle such common hazards such as airframe icing, turbulence, thunderstorms, and density altitude? Of course, one could argue that upon encountering bad weather, airphibian pilots would land and proceed on the ground. But that argument assumes judgment and skill not in evidence on today’s highways and byways; wide availability of landing spots; and a discipline sadly lacking even among many current pilots.

In the end, air/ground vehicles like the Transition could save on hangar and tie-down costs, but that’s about their only true advantage over existing aircraft, at least until the general public becomes much more comfortable with small aircraft and all that they imply.

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