Why Don't We Have Flying Cars Yet?

Photo © driventofly.com

We put a man on the moon. We send text messages around the world. We've mastered cold fusion. Okay, so that was a hoax...

But the many attempts to build a flying car have mostly seemed like hoaxes, or at least fantastical dreams that ended in failure. And if they haven’t failed yet, it seems like they’re permanently in a development stage, or awaiting some sort of approval.

So why don't we have flying cars yet?

Everyone wants one, right? We all want to be able to walk out to our garage, fire up our car, drive it to a runway, fold out the wings, launch into the sky, fly across the country, land on a runway, fold up the wings or drop down the wheels and drive on to visit the relatives or attend that meeting or vacation at the beach. In the communications business we talk about the last mile, that last stretch of copper wire that brings the internet or the cable television or the telephone to our house. It's that last mile, that last few hundred feet that are so difficult and expensive to achieve. That's the dirty little secret about personal air transportation. It gets us only to the runway – and the runway is not where we want to go. We want to go to the beach or the hotel or the office.

But we don’t really want them, after all...

Of course, a flying car sounds pretty great. But when it comes down to it, it’s the idea of a flying car that most people like.

It sounds idyllic. It seems efficient. And in a strange cosmic Jetsons-style way, maybe even a bit romantic. But when it comes down to it, it’s a toy, and it’s a toy that loses its appeal when many people find out the cost and requirements to own it, the regulations that are involved and, like a boat or a pool, some people just realize that they probably won’t use it after all.

Flying car designs (to date anyway) have always made crappy cars… and crappy airplanes. As a car, it’s just not that great. The Terrafugia Transition, for example, is rear-wheel drive, has terrible visibility and doesn't get over 70 miles per hour. It wasn’t really designed to be a car, though. And for the almost $300,000 price, you could buy a Ferrari F12 and have way more fun. 

And as an airplane, the flying car is slow and clumsy. It wasn’t really designed to be an airplane. So you get the worst of both. For $300,000 you could buy any one of the common single-engine airplanes (like the SR22) that will seat the wife and kids, the dog, your ski gear and all of your luggage for a week vacation. And you'll get there a lot quicker. 

There are aircraft and vehicle certification issues…

So the demand is there, we think. And designers have gone to work building flying cars like the Transition and the Pal V. But how, exactly, do you design a car that complies with all of the vehicle regulations, as well as the federal aviation regulations regarding aircraft certification? It’s no easy task, and it ultimately means that, at least for the time being, flying cars will come with a hefty price tag.

The aviation industry has attempted to classify these flying cars - the Transition, to be specific - as Light Sport Aircraft, or LSA aircraft, which come with a set of requirements, both for the aircraft and the pilot.

A light sport aircraft must be an unpressurized single-engine piston airplane, can’t weigh more than 1,320 pounds, and must have a maximum speed of 120 knots. It must have fixed landing gear and a fixed pitch propeller - design considerations that are tricky to work around. (Car tires or airplane tires? What do you do with the propeller when you want to drive the car? Can it have airbags? Or a parachute like the Cirrus SR22?)

In addition, light sport aircraft are restricted to no more than two occupants, so you’ll have to choose which kid you want to take with you to the beach.

And there is not much room for luggage. Practically speaking, it’s a terrible idea. But it is a toy, after all. 

The light sport aircraft certification, by the way, was designed as a way to stimulate the growth of the general aviation industry by making flying more affordable and by creating a category of aircraft that would be immune to the intense aircraft certification standards that most aircraft are subject to. The light sport aircraft category would make it easier for people to become pilots for less of a financial burden. But this part of the industry has, to this date, failed miserably. Many new LSA were designed and built, but it just didn’t happen. For a variety of reasons, this light sport sector of the industry just failed to take off, and many barely-used light sport aircraft are available on the market today.

But back to flying cars. Getting a car certified for flight seems like an impossible task, but the relentless folks at Terrafugia are still working on it: The Transition is currently pending approval from the federal road gods and auto regulators.

And there are pilot certification issues…

The light sport aircraft thing is great, but this type of aircraft (er, flying airplane) requires a sport pilot certificate, and the sport pilot certificate has restrictions. So even with a fancy new flying car and a fancy new sport pilot certificate, a person will still not be permitted to fly anywhere they wish.

To become a sport pilot, you’re required to take the FAA written exam, get at least 20 hours of dual instruction from a flight instructor and take a “check ride” with a FAA designated examiner. (Yet another challenge; how many pilot examiners are going to be willing to hop into a flying car they don’t know anything about?)

Sport pilots must also possess a third-class aviation medical certificate (a driver’s license can be used in lieu of an aviation medical certificate, so long as the pilot has not been denied a medical certificate in the past and doesn’t have a medical condition that would affect the safety of flight or their pilot in command responsibilities.)

Sport pilots cannot fly in furtherance of a business (sorry, business people), and cannot carry passengers for compensation or hire. They cannot fly above 10,000 feet MSL and are limited to domestic (non-international) day flights only.

And then there are airspace issues…

Finally, the FAA has a responsibility to keep our airspace safe, and if you can imagine a bunch of flying cars, along with a bunch of drones, along with the usual helicopters, fixed-wing airplanes, hot air balloons, gliders, and RC aircraft, the low-altitude airspace is getting a bit chaotic.

To be safe and efficient, the FAA must plan to incorporate any flying cars into the current airspace profile seamlessly, and this means that flying cars must have the proper equipment ( like ADS-B)  on board in order to gain access to specific airspace or airports. 

But it's not over until Larry Page says so...

There are so many reasons we don’t yet have flying cars readily available to the general public.

But pessimism aside, there’s reason to believe that the quest for a magical flying car is not yet done. Google co-founder Larry Page was recently rumored to have invested more than $100 million in a flying car startup called Zee.Aero. And Toyota was awarded a patent it filed in 2014 for a version of a flying car that includes stackable wings that would slide underneath the car. Game on.