WING AND A PRAYER

Long dreamt about, the fly­ing car looks close to be­com­ing re­al­ity

Top Gear (UK) - - FLYING CAR - WORDS: JA­SON BAR­LOW / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: MARK FAGELSON

Ju­raj Vac­ulík is not an en­gi­neer or avi­a­tor. In fact, he’s the frst to ad­mit that he’s an un­likely avatar for the fy­ing car, a con­cept that has fred a thou­sand sci-f movies with­out ever ac­tu­ally get­ting of the ground. But nor is the man behind AeroMo­bil’s mag­nif­cent fy­ing ma­chine an en­tre­pre­neur dilet­tante.

“Free­dom to travel”, he tells me, “is what pro­pels this idea. It’s deeply rooted in us, as peo­ple. I grew up in a former Com­mu­nist coun­try, and we used to stare across the River Danube at Aus­tria and imag­ine what life must be like. I have per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of how a small group of peo­ple can change ev­ery­thing. Now I am ready for an­other rev­o­lu­tion.”

Vac­ulík was study­ing theatre di­rec­tion in Cze­choslo­vakia in 1989 when the spirit of rev­o­lu­tion that razed the Ber­lin Wall spread east and ul­ti­mately ripped through the Iron Cur­tain. The young Vac­ulík was one of the prime movers in the so-called Vel­vet Rev­o­lu­tion, which soon saw rebel play­wright and hu­man rights ac­tivist Vá­clav Havel elected Pres­i­dent. Now, in an ad­mit­tedly un­ex­pected twist of fate, he wants to democra­tise the skies. “Our trans­port in­fra­struc­ture is at break­ing point. We need to fnd the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween road and air,” he says, ges­tur­ing to an empty blue sky. “Re­mem­ber when the cell­phone frst ap­peared? Some ob­servers said its growth would be lin­ear, not ex­po­nen­tial, and we all know what hap­pened next. We be­lieve the fy­ing car has that po­ten­tial.”

Slovakia is not Sil­i­con Val­ley, but don’t be too hasty about mak­ing judge­ments. AeroMo­bil’s HQ is an im­pres­sively pol­ished fa­cil­ity on the out­skirts of Bratislava, a re­gion that cur­rently pro­duces more cars per capita than any­where else in the world, home to huge PSA and VW man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ties, and soon a shiny new £1bn JLR fac­tory. Costs are lower in east­ern Europe while still guar­an­tee­ing ac­cess to the EU, but there’s also mas­sive ex­per­tise here. By the time an old school friend called Ste­fan Klein started sell­ing him on his vi­sion for a fy­ing car, Ju­raj had pros­pered in the ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try and was sup­port­ing start-ups in Slovakia.

AeroMo­bil was founded in 2010, and the frst pro­to­type, v2.5, ap­peared in 2013. It looks a bit shonky now, but at a global avi­a­tion gather­ing in Mon­treal, the in­dus­try ac­knowl­edged that there was more than just pie in the sky go­ing on here. And it few; not far, but far enough. Ten months later, v3.0 ap­peared, the work of 12 peo­ple, deep­en­ing the proof of con­cept, and de­vel­op­ing the com­pany’s IP to an ex­tent that AeroMo­bil now found it­self reg­is­ter­ing mul­ti­ple patents and on the radar of heavy­weights like NASA and Boeing. “We pre­sented v3.0 in Vi­enna,” Ju­raj says, “which was per­son­ally very emo­tional for me. We got a great re­sponse, but of course plenty

of peo­ple still looked at what we were do­ing as a… cu­rios­ity. How cred­i­ble can a bunch of Slo­vaks in a big garage build­ing a fy­ing car really be?”

He ap­proached more in­vestors and in­dus­try OEMs than he’s ready to ad­mit, and faced down a lot of re­jec­tion. It was deemed just too risky. But when a con­sul­tant called Glenn Mercer, McKin­sey & Com­pany’s former head of au­to­mo­tive prac­tice, told him he was really on to some­thing, and in­tro­duced him to a guy called Antony Sherif, the path to v4.0 was set.

Sherif is now chair­man of Princess Yachts, but you might re­mem­ber him as a former VP of Fiat and MD of McLaren Au­to­mo­tive. Hav­ing presided over the de­vel­op­ment of the SLR and the cre­ation of McLaren as a stand­alone car­maker, Sherif is a man with a fnely honed bull­shit de­tec­tor. “He told me he few to Vi­enna not know­ing what to ex­pect. When he ar­rived, he spent 20 min­utes ex­am­in­ing ev­ery el­e­ment of the car,” Ju­raj re­calls. “Fi­nally he said, ‘OK, I’m in.’ His in­volve­ment has made a huge difer­ence, as we move the project to­wards the pro­duc­tion phase.”

McLaren’s ex-boss tipped of a former col­league, Doug MacAndrew. Doug be­gan his ca­reer work­ing on the orig­i­nal Dis­cov­ery, and de­vel­oped the new Mini, be­fore mov­ing to Wok­ing. “Antony said, ‘You really need to check these guys out,’” he tells me. “I looked at v3.0, and was search­ing for the smok­ing gun. Ifgured there had to be a rea­son why no one had ever done a fy­ing car, why it just couldn’t hap­pen. But I couldn’t fnd it.”

A decade or two ago, he prob­a­bly would have. But he agrees that a num­ber of fac­tors are con­verg­ing to turn the mi­rage that is the fy­ing car into a re­al­ity. Pri­mar­ily, the tech now ex­ists to merge what are two wholly difer­ent if not in­com­pat­i­ble sets of re­quire­ments, in en­gi­neer­ing the thing so that it ac­tu­ally works, but also in nav­i­gat­ing the labyrinthine leg­isla­tive frame­work – both in au­to­mo­tive and aerospace. De­sign soft­ware and CFD (com­pu­ta­tional fuid dy­nam­ics) mean that the tools now ex­ist to prove the physics vir­tu­ally in a way that a start-up could never have imag­ined pre­vi­ously. Fi­nally, modern avion­ics are now vastly lighter and eas­ier to pack­age. “V3.0 has racked up 50 fy­ing hours, and we’ve done many thou­sands of fy­ing hours on the sim­u­la­tor, so we know what v4.0 can do,” Doug says. “The next phase is to build a val­i­da­tion pro­to­type.”

Like all air­craft, the AeroMo­bil is ruth­lessly weight-op­ti­mised: its max­i­mum take-of weight is 960kg (720kg with­out oc­cu­pants or fuel); get up close to it, and it’s clear that it isn’t just plau­si­ble, it’s con­vinc­ingly en­gi­neered and ex­pertly ex­e­cuted. “We’ve maxed out on the use of car­bon-fbre com­pos­ites to achieve the weight tar­gets we’d set our­selves,” MacAndrew says. True, its form and sur­fac­ing posits a third way some­where be­tween car and plane with­out look­ing like ei­ther, but if you pic­ture a McLaren fy­ing car you wouldn’t be far of.

Se­ri­ous credit must go to de­signer Adam Danko. Car de­sign­ers, in their more fan­ci­ful mo­ments, tend to de­scribe the body-side as a fuse­lage; the AeroMo­bil gen­uinely has one, and it’s beau­ti­fully sculpted. In fact, it gets less car-like the fur­ther your eye trav­els along it and more in­trigu­ing. The waisted fuse­lage and em­pen­nage – the rear sec­tion that houses an air­craft’s sta­bil­is­ing sur­faces – cul­mi­nates in the mount­ing for the pro­pel­ler, but does such a con­vinc­ing job of look­ing like a jet tur­bine that more than one per­son has asked the team if they’ve thought about do­ing ex­actly that.

The chas­sis is sim­i­lar in con­cept to McLaren’s Monocage: it’s a pre-preg car­bon tub with an ex­truded aluminium crash box mounted on the front. The ducts on the side fun­nel cool­ing air into the en­gine, and a sec­ond set ahead of the rear sus­pen­sion struts dis­pel ex­haust gases. The cen­tral sec­tion con­sists of an in­te­grated car­bon cra­dle that houses the power unit, with a ‘cru­ci­form’ un­der­neath for ad­di­tional rigid­ity, and mount­ing points for the wings. These mo­tor on ac­tu­a­tors into a stowage po­si­tion above the fuse­lage on beau­ti­fully de­signed piv­ots, whose ‘load case’ benefts from aerospace rigour to with­stand six times the safety re­quire­ment. The wings them­selves are also made of car­bon com­pos­ites, and fea­ture faps for ad­di­tional sur­face area, some­thing of a nov­elty in an air­craft that fts the ‘gen­eral avi­a­tion’ re­mit (a light plane rated to fy at al­ti­tudes up to 10,000ft). It takes three min­utes to switch from car to fight mode.

From behind, you really could be look­ing at an en­larged LMP1 en­durance racer, ft­ted with the world’s big­gest di­fuser. Yet there are strips of light down the tail-fns, and be­cause it’s a car it also needs a bumper. This de­ploys on the road, and folds away in the air. The pro­pel­ler blades also stash away in an in­ge­nious hous­ing. The whole thing is a se­ri­ous chal­lenge to ev­ery­thing you thought you knew about cars and planes, but in a good way. It’s also a whop­ping 5.9m long, the op­ti­mum length for pro­vid­ing good pitch con­trol, lon­gi­tu­di­nal stability, and to de­liver a fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence ac­ces­si­ble to own­ers who lack the skill set of a Hol­ly­wood stunt pi­lot. You will need a PPL, though. And balls of steel when re­verse par­al­lel park­ing.

The AeroMo­bil is pow­ered by a Euro 6-com­pli­ant 2.0-litre tur­bocharged four-pot that acts as a gen­er­a­tor for twin elec­tric mo­tors pro­duc­ing 110bhp, driv­ing the front wheels, which them­selves slide out of the body on ac­tu­a­tors to pro­vide the nec­es­sary track width for sta­ble road use (much en­gi­neer­ing efort has gone into de­vel­op­ing the sus­pen­sion ge­om­e­try). The ICE power unit de­liv­ers 300bhp in fight mode, with di­rect drive to a vari­able pitch pro­pel­ler, and the cruis­ing range is 750km (466 miles) at 75 per cent throt­tle. Pro­drive has de­vel­oped the en­gine specif­cally for AeroMo­bil, an­other gold stan­dard indication of ‘proof of con­cept’. MacAndrew says the en­gine is ca­pa­ble of much more, al­though they’re be­ing de­lib­er­ately con­ser­va­tive, and on skinny rub­ber it’s not about push­ing any han­dling en­velopes. “OK, so it can only do 100mph, but can you think of a bet­ter car in which to make an en­trance?” Doug notes drily.

A Smart road­ster lurks at the back of the han­gar: its in­te­rior pack­ag­ing has pro­vided the model for the AeroMo­bil’s cabin. You drop into it al­most like you would a sin­gle-seater rac­ing car, and the seats are sim­i­lar in con­cept to a LaFer­rari’s: the cush­ion is fxed to the tub, with an el­e­ment that slides out un­der your thighs, and a movable pedal box. It’s el­e­gantly done, and the Garmin dis­play sys­tems are state-of-the-art. The glass area in the doors ex­tends above your head for the nec­es­sary in-fight vis­i­bil­ity, and safety fea­tures run to a bal­lis­tic parachute sys­tem.

It’s a colos­sal feat of en­gi­neer­ing and imag­i­na­tion. It also pioneers some clever tech that may well fnd its way into the fy­ing Ubers and Ama­zon drones that are on the horizon. Note, also, that Larry Page, one of Google’s founders, has in­vested $120m of his own money into fy­ing cars. AeroMo­bil’s IP is clearly highly prized, and the Slo­vakian gov­ern­ment is on board, too. It costs from $1.2m, so you’ll need to be a well-heeled early adopter: Gisele Bünd­chen, Har­ri­son Ford, and Jay Z are all on AeroMo­bil’s tar­get list.

“Why now?” Ju­raj an­swers. “Be­cause we des­per­ately need this sort of in­no­va­tion. We need to make medium-dis­tance travel faster. The World Bank is pre­dict­ing that $8tn is go­ing to be spent on in­fra­struc­ture in China and Africa in the next decade. That means more de­for­esta­tion and dam­age. Look up! AeroMo­bil is a niche prod­uct, but it will prove the mar­ket, prove the tech­nol­ogy, and prove the brand.”

For once, the sky truly is the limit.

“How cred­i­ble can a bunch of Slo­vaks in a big garage be?”

AeroMo­bil demon­strates its cruis­ing al­ti­tude of 0.75 feet (nose only)

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