— Fly­ing cars

One dream of au­to­mo­tive fu­tur­ists has never re­ally taken off. CATHAL O’CON­NELL has high hopes the lat­est at­tempt will fly.

Cosmos - - Contents -

PULL OUT OF your drive­way, push a but­ton and take off. The fly­ing car is a fu­tur­is­tic dream that has long been just out of reach. Now, fi­nally, the new tech­nol­ogy that guides au­ton­o­mous drones and self-driv­ing cars means the first seem­ingly mar­ketable fly­ing cars could be about to take off.

It has been more than a cen­tury since the first at­tempt at a fly­ing car – a sort of sta­tion wagon with wings, called the Cur­tiss Au­to­plane. It man­aged a few hops at an expo in New York in 1917 but never achieved full flight.

Al­most ev­ery decade since has had its own fly­ing car de­signs. Per­haps the clos­est the idea ever got to mar­ket was in the 1970s when Ford se­ri­ously con­sid­ered the fea­si­bil­ity of pro­duc­ing the Ae­ro­car, de­signed by Moulton Tay­lor. Then the decade’s oil cri­sis killed off the idea.

Now Amer­i­can com­pany Ter­rafu­gia (from the Latin words for “earth” and “flee”) is one of a new gen­er­a­tion chas­ing the dream. Its first of­fer­ing, the Ter­rafu­gia Tran­si­tion, is al­ready avail­able for pre-order. A two-seater with fold­able wings, it is more ‘driv­ing plane’ than ‘fly­ing car’. In the air it looks sporty enough, with a top speed of 160 km/h and a range of more than 600 km, but you still need a run­way to get air­borne, and a pilot’s li­cence.

The Tran­si­tion’s very name ac­knowl­edges the model is a step­ping stone. Ter­rafu­gia’s next it­er­a­tion, the TF-X, prom­ises to be al­to­gether more ex­cit­ing.


Cru­cially, the TF-X will be able to take off and land ver­ti­cally. For­get run­ways – a level clear­ing the size of a small he­li­pad will do. Lift comes from two elec­tric ro­tors run­ning on pow­er­ful, but light, 500 kilo­watt mo­tor pods. Driv­ing the ro­tors elec­tri­cally is crit­i­cal be­cause it means they don’t need to be cou­pled to a heavy en­gine, like that of a he­li­copter. How­ever, you will still need to charge the bat­tery us­ing the car en­gine, hy­brid style.


In the air the ve­hi­cle’s two ro­tors can tilt for­ward and, along with the large rotary fan at the back, will pro­pel the TF-X up to 322 km/h. The fly­ing, take-off and land­ing will all be largely au­to­mated, so you won’t need to be a qual­i­fied pilot to fly it. Ter­rafu­gia ex­pects flight train­ing could be knocked off in about five hours.


The TF-X is de­signed to avoid dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions by au­to­mat­i­cally skip­ping around bad weather, and to keep clear of re­stricted airspace (such as near air­ports) and other air traf­fic. If a driver be­comes un­re­spon­sive, the TF-X will fly it­self to the near­est pre-ap­proved land­ing spot. In case of a more urgent prob­lem, a full-ve­hi­cle para­chute is packed away in­side the chas­sis.


On the ground, with the ro­tors neatly pack­ing away in­side the chas­sis in less than a minute, the TF-X will be­come a quite prac­ti­cal car. It will seat four, fit in a stan­dard sin­gle­car garage or park­ing space, and run on reg­u­lar petrol.


Backed by Geely, the Chi­nese au­to­mo­tive gi­ant that owns Volvo and The Lon­don Taxi Com­pany, Ter­rafu­gia reck­ons the TF-X will take an­other decade to de­velop. But a price tag in the re­gion of US$349,000 means the TF-X will be a toy of the su­per-rich.

The rest of us might have to be con­tent with ‘fly­ing taxi’ ser­vices. Uber is in­vest­ing in Uberair, which it hopes to have ready for the Los An­ge­les 2028 Olympics. Buzzing over grid­lock, the com­pany says, could re­duce an 80-minute car jour­ney to just four.

Uber does not plan to de­sign or build the fly­ing taxi air­craft it­self. Ger­man com­pany evolo has al­ready built one that could do the job. Its Volo­copter 2X is not a fly­ing car but he­li­copter-meets-drone, with 18 ro­tor blades.

The multi-ro­tor de­sign al­lows ex­cel­lent hov­er­ing sta­bil­ity, just like a drone, and avoids a he­li­copter’s deaf­en­ing whomp. The fully elec­tric air­craft has a range of 27 km at a cruis­ing speed of 50 km/h, and can fly it­self. It may be be the de­sign di­rec­tion to take with fly­ing cars.

Uber has al­ready signed deals to con­vert the roofs of up to 20 LA prop­er­ties into land­ing pads, and an­other with NASA to de­velop soft­ware to man­age a fly­ing taxi fleet. Man­age­ment is cru­cial. The thing about fly­ing cars is that building the ve­hi­cle it­self is the eas­i­est part. Much more dif­fi­cult will be coming up with reg­u­la­tions to man­age air traf­fic, so that hun­dreds or thou­sands of small air­craft can safely fly low over pop­u­lated ar­eas.

“Roads? Where we’re go­ing, we don’t need roads.” Doc Brown, Back to the Fu­ture

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