The flying car: about to become a reality or pie in the sky?

After almost 100 years of chasing the flying car, how close are we to achieving the dream? EDGAR investigates…

Peter Iantorno April 15, 2015

The flying car: seen by many as the ultimate aspiration of future travel technology, it's a dream that has been in the public consciousness since the likes of The Jetsons and later Back To the Future wowed audiences with a futuristic picture of seamless door-to-door travel.

In fact the history of the flying car goes back even further than the 60s sitcoms, with the first serious attempt at building one made almost 100 years ago. It was back in 1917 by inventor Glenn Curtiss, whose Autoplane never actually took flight but did manage a few short hops at least. And as early as 1946, Robert Fulton's The Airphibian became the first working example. It had a detachable propellor that could be stored in the plane's fuselage, it could fly at almost 200 km/h, drive at 80km/h and took five minutes to convert from plane to car.

Of course, technology has moved on an awful long way since 1946, when the fastest production cars in the world couldn't get much past 150km/h and the UAE was still 25 years from existence. And one of the latest companies chasing the flying car dream is Aeromobil, which claims that it is on course to release its first commercially viable model in 2017, after making a new working prototype capable of 200km/h and with a flying range of 700km.Airphibian

Vertical take-off

The AeroMobil is a prime example of the first bone of contention with the whole concept of the flying car. Is the AeroMobil cool? Yes. Do we wish we had one? Undoubtedly. But is it a flying car that could change the future of travel? Almost certainly not. Why? Because, crucially, the thing has to be travelling at 130km/h before it will even take off!

While the new demonstration video produced by the Slovakian company behind the machine is undoubtedly impressive, the fact that the car needs a runway before it can leave the ground renders it, unfortunately, pretty useless in real-world terms. Imagine trying to get up to flying speed before you hit traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road... Never gonna happen.

With the massive interest and investment currently going into drones, which often use systems than enable vertical take-off and landing, a scaled-up version of this kind of technology seems the most likely way a viable flying car could develop.AeromobilAuto pilot

The second point to consider is safety, and this is a topic that even the biggest names and pioneers in futuristic forms of travel have expressed concerns with. For example, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said recently on episode of popular science podcast Startalk, "If there are flying cars then obviously you have this additional dimension where a car could potentially fall on your head and would be susceptible to weather. It’s got to be autopilot, but even on autopilot, and even if you’ve got redundant motors and blades, you are still going from near zero chance of something falling on your head to something greater than that."

It's a fair point, and coming from Musk, the man at the head of Tesla, a company leading the way in self-driving cars, we're inclined to take note of what he's saying.

While Musk acknowledged that flying cars would help alleviate traffic, he went on to propose a solution he sees as much simpler and certainly less dangerous. "I think if you were to have more car tunnels, then you would alleviate the congestion completely… and you wouldn’t need a flying car in that case, and it would always work, even if the weather is bad," he said.


The final thing holding back the flying car from actually becoming a useful form of transport is money. While no firm pricing has been set for the AeroMobil, the company's co-founder told Forbes that it expected them to be sold for a “couple hundred thousand dollars.” So we're talking AED 735,000 - and that's on the low end of the estimate.

Even forgetting the issues with a car that can't take off and land vertically, if you factor in the inevitable hitches in development, plus whatever extra it would cost to integrate some kind of Tesla-style self-driving autopilot mechanism, you'd be extremely lucky to get any change from AED 1 million. Hardly fit for the mass market.

So despite almost 100 years of development, it seems we're still some off way off a truly viable flying car. If the flying car is ever to really get off the ground, it needs to be a) Able to take off and land vertically. b) Able to fly itself, and c) Produced at a price reasonable enough that millions could afford to buy it. And we can't see that happening any time soon. Sorry Back to the Future fans...