From Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to Doc Brown’s De Lorean in Back to the Future, the dream of so-called ‘roadable aircraft’ has captivated human imagination since the dawn of the aviation era. It immersed itself into the heart of popular culture and provided a vision of a future that, while thrilling, often seems as elusive as ever.
The narrative of flying cars harks back to the early twentieth century, when visionaries first dreamt of a world where cars could defy gravity. In the future will there be flying cars? It’s a question that’s been asked for almost a hundred years, but are we any closer to discovering the answer?
Let’s explore the fine line separating theory from reality in the context of flying cars, a concept that represents both an audacious goal and a technological conundrum.
A Short History of Flying Cars
Like floating hoverboards and robot butlers, the future hover car has become somewhat of a caricature. Over the decades, futurologists, visionaries and science fiction writers have all predicted a time when suburban driveways would be populated with flying cars. However, as yet, this particular hybrid hasn’t quite materialised.
But that’s not for the want of trying.
As early as 1901, aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead built a twin-engined monoplane with foldable wings, and while images exist of it sitting on the ground, none exist of it in flight. A number of eye witnesses claimed to have seen the Whitehead No. 21 in the air but their credibility remains a contentious issue.
During World War I, Glenn Curtiss, one of the founding fathers of the US aviation industry, built the 100 hp, V8-powered Curtiss Autoplane. It had detachable wings and although it’s believed it was capable of lifting off the ground, flight was a pipe dream.
Since those early pioneers, hundreds of innovators and inventors have attempted to make commercially-viable flying cars, but none have been successful. In recent years however, it seems as if flying vehicles of the future may not be such a distant dream after all.
The Race for the Skies
While the concept of the future hover car remains an experimental curiosity rather than a practical proposition, investment is being made that may see flying cars becoming a reality.
South Korean conglomerate Hyundai is reported to have committed around $1.5 billion in urban air mobility (UAM) technology, while Terrafugia – owned by the parent company of Volvo – has had a roadable aircraft in development for a decade.
The Airbus Vahana, an electric-powered VTOL – vertical take off and landing – craft was developed by the French aviation giants. Yet despite partial airborne success in 2018, the project was shut down the following year.
Other companies in Brazil and the USA are also developing flying cars, but it’s very much a ‘watch this space’, or more accurately, ‘look up’ to see if any come to fruition. So the question remains. In the future will there be flying cars? The answer has a lot to do with science.
Science Fiction or Science Fact?
Despite the remarkable advances in drone technology, which similarly harnesses sophisticated propulsion methods required to get flying cars airborne, they don’t carry the same weight of expectations. They aren’t required to transport humans, withstand diverse weather conditions, or fit into existing infrastructure and regulatory frameworks.
And then there’s the physical issue of getting a car to fly. Making a futuristic flying car is an incredibly complex mix of physics, engineering, autonomous technology, mechanics, logistics and industrial design, not to mention the eye-watering costs involved.
Let’s use a practical example of a small electric car like a Vauxhall Corsa-e or a Renault Zoe with (for ease of maths) a range of 100 miles on full charge. To overcome the physical forces of drag and gravity, the battery power required to take the car 100 miles on the road would be gone in under a minute hovering fifty metres in the air.
To get the car airborne and fly it 100 miles with four passengers, an energy source equivalent to a 500kWh battery is often seen as the benchmark, though it’s obviously dependent on the vehicle specifics. However, this kind of battery would likely add around two to four additional tonnes to the total weight of the car and its passengers.
Here’s where it gets tricky. In order to lift the extra battery weight, even more energy is needed. As more weight is added, more energy is required. But it quickly reaches a point where energy can’t be added fast enough to match the added weight. This creates a never-ending cycle where the power needed keeps escalating as the weight increases.
There’s Nowhere to Park
But the issues surrounding flying cars of the future aren’t just about physics. There are serious logistical and environmental obstacles to overcome and complicated questions to answer.
Flying cars need to be reliable and safe to operate both on the road and in the air. In order for mass adoption to take hold, they need to be driven/flown without the need for a pilot’s licence. Price-wise, they need to be similar to that of average road-going vehicles to both buy and maintain.
Municipal car parks and private driveways will need to be modified and propulsion systems need to be quiet and energy efficient, so as to not cause additional noise or energy pollution.
Then there’s the issue of red tape.
Can the Idea of Flying Cars ever get off the Ground?
‘In the future will there be flying cars’ is a captivating question, however the practical path to making this dream a reality is laden with significant obstacles.
Regulation and Air Traffic Control
The regulations governing the use of airspace are complex, stringent, and vary significantly from country to country. These rules would need to be extensively reworked to accommodate the proliferation of flying cars. This is further complicated by the need to integrate flying cars into existing air traffic control systems to prevent accidents and manage traffic, especially in congested urban areas.
Safety and Security Concerns
The safety issues associated with any future hover car are manifold, from concerns about mid-air collisions and accidents to the dangers posed by mechanical failures.
The infrastructure required to support flying vehicles in the future, from ‘vertiports’ for take-off and landing to repair and maintenance facilities, is currently non-existent and would require significant investment. Flying cars would also need to be integrated into existing transportation infrastructure.
The environmental implications of flying cars could be considerable. Although battery-powered models could help mitigate some of these concerns, questions remain about the impact of widespread use of such vehicles on noise pollution, local weather patterns, and wildlife.
Public acceptance of flying cars is uncertain. People will have any number of reservations and transitioning to a world where cars are flying overhead would require considerable societal adjustments.
When Will We Get Flying Cars?
As we stand at the precipice of what could be a new era in transportation, the tantalising promise of a futuristic flying car looms large. Technological advances, coupled with significant investments from both legacy manufacturers and dynamic start-ups, have brought us closer than ever. However, the path towards everyday use remains a huge challenge.
Despite the hurdles, the potential for flying cars is vast. They could transform urban mobility, reduce ground traffic, and make travel more efficient. Yet, the journey to mass adoption isn’t easy. Overcoming the complexities of regulatory frameworks, building suitable infrastructure, ensuring safety and security, mitigating environmental impact, and winning public acceptance are formidable challenges that stand in the way.
In the future will there be flying cars? Probably, but the reality of flying cars becoming a common sight in our skies will depend on the seamless convergence of technological advancements, policy evolution, and societal readiness. The road (or rather, the flight path) ahead is complex, but every day we become a step closer to a world where the line between cars and planes blurs.