I’ve been meaning to post more of my Science in Science-Fiction posts for a while, and thought I’d kick off the reboot with this post, that for me, was one of the mysteries of our age.
Flying cars: A Vision of the future
Human beings have long sought the dream of flight, and we’ve had that ability for over a century now, but the dream was always that the ability to fly would be as cheap and as ubiquitous as the car. Henry Ford himself is quoted as saying “Mark my word(s): a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”
On the surface, the idea of cheap air vehicles that could take to the roads in cities and fly in the countryside, seems an easy ask. After all, we’ve had aeroplane (airplane for the States) technology since 1903 and fixed wing-gliders for almost a half century more, at least. So why haven’t they ever appeared? Well, there’s actually a lot of different reasons, that I’ll try and cover.
First the fiction
When I started researching the history of the flying car in fiction I was surprised at how few examples I could find.
While early science-fiction shows such as the 1939 Buck Rogers serials did show a multiplicity of flying vehicles it was already a cinematic short hand for demonstrating the future. But why?
1930s “Just Imagine” might be to blame. Set fifty years in the future, it imagined the progress of the future fifty years would be about as profound as the previous fifty. They weren’t wrong in that assumption, but things didn’t go the way they thought.
At the time, the science-fiction film had a huge budget and set standards the serials would try to emulate, unfortunately it was not a hit, and with it the genre of science-fiction musicals was condemned to oblivion until The Rocky Horror Show dragged it back into obscurity and cultish persistence.
But, it seems the dream of the flying car, is not one that evolved from science-fiction at all. It instead was the dream of aeronautical engineers.
As early as 1917 Glen Curtiss, who was a rival of the Wright’s, tried to sell the American public on the idea of an “Autoplane”. Curtiss was a pioneer of flying boats, which are a similar concept. The Autoplane was not a success, the prototype only ever managed to hop along, never really reaching full flight (which considering it was only fourteen years since the Wright flyer is not surprising).
Development on the car with detachable wings was suspended because of a pesky thing called World War One. When America joined the War they commissioned Curtiss to design flying boats. He designed and built the machines throughout the war and retired from Aircraft manufacture after the war, he never returning to his flying car.
Following the war the American government sold all the military surplus that they had acquired, dumping a great number of fighters. trainers and flying boats on the market. This put American civil aircraft manufacturers in a state of having to compete with their own products being practically given away. This caused a slump in sales, and a later market collapse. Only those manufacturers who truly innovated in this time managed to survive through the twenties.
The Early “Failures”
The 1920s and 30s were an interesting period for science and technology. World’s fairs and science-fiction pushed people to think about the world of tomorrow, and there were developments in all fields of engineering.
Planes became more robust, and the only companies that survived the post war slump in the states were all building larger and more powerful planes, so perhaps inevitably, passenger flights started. While these early passenger planes were more like buses, they sold themselves as ships and liners. This early branding probably had a profound effect. Why learn to fly yourself, when you could fly safely and luxuriously in comfort? All of the benefits without any of the difficulties. It might also be noted that cities that had good public transport systems at this time around the world, also had lower up-take on cars. All of which meant that the demand for a vehicle that you could drive or fly as you required just wasn’t there.
This is no more obvious than the Autogyro was first flown in 1923. The Autogyro, or Gyrocopter, is a perfect machine for being developed into a flying car. The Rotors fold away and the powerful motor easily propels the vehicle in the air or on a road.
In fact, it was only in 1936 that an Autogiro Company of America AC-35 landed in a city park in Washington D.C. was shown off to the public, converted into road mode and drove away. The flying car had officially arrived, it seemed.
But the AC-35 had a number of problems, not least that while it could fly at a respectable 75mph the relatively small wheels limited it to only 25mph on the roads.
While this may seem perfect for our inner city needs these days, there was a lot less traffic on roads back then and people found the car mode far too slow. That combined with the need for a pilot’s license, as well as limited passenger and cargo space, and the fact that Autogyros look spindly and unsafe compared to other aircraft, all meant that the Autogiro never really caught on.
The Gwinn Aircar tried to make 1937 it’s year. A strange looking fat biplane, which was designed to be an easy to fly, safe, personal plane. However, the second prototype managed to collide with power lines while taking off from a small airfield, and that effectively ended development.
Waldo Waterman created the Arrowbile in 1939 (later renamed the Aerobile), and it was truly a vision of the future. It was a tailless monoplane that could detach it’s overhead wings and propeller and drive around. And it worked! But there just wasn’t the market for the vehicle.
Admittedly the idea that you had to store your wings, and reattached them before you flew, does seem a pretty poor design choice for convenience, but it is still surprising that given the size of the USA, and the state of the road networks then, that this small plane did not catch on. Maybe it’s that name…
In fact, there have been several flying car designs through the years. Sometimes they crash, sometimes they work, but they never catch on, and they never sell. Time and time again companies have tried, and failed to get the public to buy into personal air vehicles.
The 1960s saw mankind step from the surface of the Earth onto other worlds. The future was here, and after only a few short decades we had started to take our place in the stars. By this point it was considered almost and inevitability that the future would include flying cars.
George Jetson began every episode by zipping through the skies in his UFO-like flying car. For the baby boomers that grew up watching The Jetsons the future had to include the flying car. But they still didn’t buy any of the designs, but then the plane cars were more expensive than their pocket-money at the time.
The Wagner Aerocar was designed at the time to look a lot like the Jetson’s car, but used a pair of counter-rotating helicopter blades to provide lift . The Aerocar seemed to suffer from the same problems as other early roadable aircraft, in that the wheels were too small to be useful (and larger wheels would have been too heavy). As is common to flying cars the Aerocar didn’t manage to attract customers (which perhaps isn’t surprising as you would need a helicopter license – which is a much harder thing to get).
Gerry Anderson, around the same time, developed Supercar. The Supermarionation project featured a car that rode on a cushion of air above the road, but could fire up it’s jet engines and retro-rockets, unfold it’s concealed wings and take off and land vertically. For the British Boomers Super Car defined what the future should be like. They too wanted their flying cars, but in this case they clearly wanted them to have wings that folded away, or they weren’t buying.
You’ll also find hints of this in the Science-fiction literature of the time. Heinlein makes mention of the Ford Family Skycar in his Future History (most notably mentioned in “If This goes On…) and his books do enjoy the flying car concept over and over again, but then he also writes about characters getting their ‘copter license at age 12 too. Heinlein, I think was tapping into that generalized feeling that the future had to include flying cars.
Movie Flying Cars
After the Science boom of the sixties we got the sci-fi boom in the cinemas. Flying cars appeared in a number of the movies of the 70s and 80s.
It starts with the apparently practical looking (but actually not airworthy) flying car in “The Man With The Golden Gun“. The film used a remote control model for the flying shots, but the idea was largely based on the AVE Mizar, which hybridized a Cessna and a Ford Pinto. The prototype broke up in flight killing the creator and CEO of the company in September 1973, a combination of bad welds and pilot error were blamed, further driving the nails into the idea’s coffin.
Star Wars gave Luke Skywalker a “Speeder” in 1977, that appeared to zoom inches above the hot sands of Tatooine. As a child I was amazed at how they had managed to make the speeder hover over the sand. I was also amazed when I found this gif that explains how it was done better than any diagrams.
Later the prequel trilogy showed flying traffic on Coruscant that appeared to have all the problems of street traffic, as well as the inherent dangers of being up in the air when your engine fails. Since the technology of Star Wars clearly includes hovering technology that seems to be small enough for even personal use, it is no surprise that they have a number of vehicles that float about and fly.
Harrison Ford had his own flying car in 1982’s Bladerunner. In the grim, future-noire, cyberpunk version of LA 2019 the police (and some private owners) use flying cars called Spinners or Aerodynes.
The Hovering, driving and flying cars are supposed to have three engines, internal combustion, jet, and anti-gravity, one for each mode.
So far Anti-gravity has been more than elusive, and apart from Dark Energy there has been no real scientific consensus that Anti-gravity could ever exist. It may one day be possible to decouple matter from the Higgs field, causing it to lose it’s mass, but I find it hard to believe we’ll manage to develop them and get them air-certified in the time left to us before 2019 rolls around.
The DeLorean time-machine from Back To The Future is converted for flight by the end of the first movie. We don’t know much about the “Hover conversion” only that it happened in 2015.
We can see what looks like some sort of exhaust gases after the DeLorean takes off. I’d guess that there’s some sort of anti-gravity (which is also seen on the hoverboard) combined with plasma thrusters.
As it turns out, according to the Back To The Future Wiki the reason we don’t all have our Hovercars is that Doc Brown discovered that the technology caused a nuclear holocaust in 2045 and ‘corrected’ the timeline by destroying the hover technology and the Mr Fusion devices that they required.
Which is convenient for the people of 2045 and explains why we don’t have hoverboards and hover cars, but I can’t help wondering how Doc Brown got Clara to safety without a hoverboard now…
Luc Besson’s 1997 epic The Fifth Element features former fighter pilot, turned hover cabbie, Korben Dallas. His hovercab flies around a futuristic New York that has as many stop signs, traffic lights and jams as ground cars suffer from, only with layers upon layers of traffic.
While the movie still looks great, the potential futuristic traffic snarls make you wonder whether this would be our actual future if we had real flying cars.
Are we finally going to find out?
There are currently at least six flying car designs that are being developed around the world that may finally break our ties to the ground. But there are problems with each of the designs and perhaps the very concept of the flying car in our modern world.
Most of the designs are cleverly engineered to combine some of the best features of planes, helicopters, lifting bodies, Coranda effect with modern cars.
Take the incredible looking Dutch built PAL-V One, a modern three-wheeled Autogyro that folds it’s rotors away and turns into a futuristic trike that like a motorcycle (or the Carver), leans into the corners.
The damn thing looks like it was meant to be in a Bond reboot designed by one of the Japanese Anime studios. It practically oozes future.
The only problems being that you still require a pilot’s license and it can only take-off and land from an airport. That hasn’t stopped them from starting production though, so maybe they’ll finally sell. Although the number of private pilots is actually in decline these days, maybe something this cool will reverse that trend.
The same restrictions also affect the the equally incredible Terrafugia Transition. which folds its wings away when driving.
So far the vehicle hasn’t moved out of the experimental prototype phase, but it might, if they don’t perfect the even cooler looking TF-X first, with it’s tilt rotors and VTOL capability.
Slightly less lucky, but much prettier, is the Aeromobil the latest prototype of which crashed in 2015. Although, it did demonstrate that the safety systems were operational, as the pilot was not severely injured despite the plane going into an uncontrolled spin. The plane deployed a ballistic parachute that slowed it’s crash landing. There is still hope it may make it to production, but certainly no sooner than 2018.
All these working flying cars share the same problems though. They can’t take off and land just anywhere, mostly because we have laws about that sort of thing, and you can’t fly any of them with just a driver’s license.
There may be ways that we can remove the need for pilot’s licenses and even air-traffic control as we know it though.
There is talk of using automated air-traffic control systems to not just guide, but actually fly small vehicles.
There has been talk, notably by Moller (who have been trying to build flying saucers and flying cars since the 1970s and so far have not managed a single tether-free test flight) that making the vehicles self fly is the only way that the general public will get off the ground.
The idea being that computers and and ducted-fans could lift the car body with passengers inside like a passenger drone, but it would be available to drive when you wanted.
Speaking of passenger drones…
The most likely way that we’ll all get to fly to work is already available. Passenger drones are the latest development in what were once called UAVs. Some bright sparks over the last few years realized that these Unmanned Aerial Vehicles could easily lift a human being, and now you can buy a Manned UAV (the irony is not lost)…
Enter the Chinese developed Ehang 184, the world’s first passenger drone. Capable of carrying one passenger and luggage (to a maximum of 100 kilos) it seems a vision of the future. Landing ports can be easily designated, by painting the logo on the ground, but because of the automation it can’t just land anywhere yet. Neither does anyone believe the drone will be allowed to take off and land from the street as those double prop engines are exposed and potentially lethal. A flying taxi service will start up in Dubai in 2017 using a fleet of these drones, according to reports.
If it proves successful this technology will probably be adapted and modified until it can lift a more significant load and will be safer to use around people.
Airbus have already got a variant concept that would self-drive to a pick-up point (perhaps nothing more than the top of a multi-storey car park), where a drone will swoop down and snatch the pod away.
The future might be that we own a pod, and rent wheels and rotors as we need them.
Quite whether these versions of the Flying Car will finally catch on is going to be an interesting thing to watch.
I have a feeling that, they won’t ever be more than a novelty. We’ve had a century of flying cars, and they’ve never caught on before. Flying looks and feels more dangerous than driving, even though statistics say the opposite.
Flying has never really been an individual ambition, we all think it might be great, but few of us ever think to take lessons. Flying lessons are similar in price to driving lessons (although you require a lot more of them to get your own pilot’s license) and yet very few people who drive have even taken a single flying taster.
Flying is undoubtedly a more difficult skill to master than driving (there’s more ways a pilot can make a mistake with that extra dimension alone), but it’s actually easier to automate.What will be interesting is as self-drive cars become normal and people are actually not driving as much and trust their lives to computers every day, will we just decide that flying is just an extension of that?
The biggest restriction will undoubtedly be the law. If the law states that all aircraft are only allowed to take off or land from a designated airport or helipad (regardless of how completely safe it might be to swoop over a moving vehicle on a six-lane road and lift away the passenger pod, or land in your street or driveway) then the dream of the flying car will always remain a scene from science-fiction.