Blade Runner. Back to the Future. The Fifth Element. Science fiction classics that all have one thing in common: flying cars.
Whether it’s gliding taxi cabs or hovering DeLoreans, Hollywood has embraced the idea of a vehicle that is as happy on the motorway as it is in the clouds. But away from the silver screen, this science fiction staple has failed to take off.
Over the years, there have been ambitious and attempts – such as the Taylor Aerocar - but few would agree that the designs are in any way practical or user-friendly.
But the ever increasing number of cars on the roads means that a vehicle that can soar into the skies remains an attractive option. “We need to try to relive congestion on our road, and one potential solution is an aerial vehicle” says Dr Michael Jump, a lecturer in aerospace at Liverpool University in the UK.
He is behind one of a clutch of firms and projects that aim to ensure the flying car doesn’t remain grounded for another century.
One of the most high-profile attempts is the Transition, an aircraft that can fold its wings, allowing it to also operate as a street-legal road vehicle. Terrafugia, the company behind the machine, see owners driving their car to an airport where the wings can be deployed for take-off. Once in the air, the vehicle has a range of 740 km (460 miles) on a single tank of regular unleaded fuel and, can carry two people plus luggage.
The machine, which had its first successful test flight earlier this year, will cost around $300,000 and is scheduled for release in 2012. Wanabee pilots will only need to have completed 20 hours of observed flying time to take to the skies.
Hot on its contrails is the PAL-V (personal air and land vehicle), which looks more like a mini-helicopter than plane. The machine, developed by a Dutch firm, is actually an autogyro, with a propeller at the rear to provide forward thrust and a free-spinning rotor to give it lift. On the ground, it operates more like a streamlined tricycle that is able to lean into corners at high speeds.
It has a similar range (560km/350 miles) and speed to the Transition (110mph/180 km/h) and is also expected to cost around $300,000. The firm is still looking for investment to help with what it calls “the birth of a new class of vehicles”.
While projects like the Transition and PAL-V aim to slot into our current transport systems, a EU-funded project called myCopter is pushing for a complete rethink. Rather than driving a car that is compromised by a requirement to fly, or flying a vehicle that is compromised by needing to drive like a car, Dr Jump's team is looking to a future where we whizz to work in Personal Aerial Vehicles (PAVs) with dedicated highways in the sky.
“This project is looking at how the air transport industry might change over the next 150 years,” says Dr Michael Jump, a lecturer in aerospace at Liverpool University.
It has already identified a number of key problems that need to be solved to make personal air transport a success.
First, is the design of the craft. The team wanted to design something that had the “familiarity of a car”. But other than that, says Dr Jump, “all bets are off”.
Some of the design proposals for the exterior of myCopter show a suitably futuristic looking vehicle, that would not look out of place in George Jetson’s garage. The system is a hybrid of a light aircraft and helicopter. It has three helicopter type rotors, but they are embedded within the large triangular wing that makes up the top surface of the aircraft, one on each side, and one on at the back. These embedded rotors are known as ducted fans, which can create greater thrust at higher safety, albeit with less efficiency.