Last week, I went to Boulder, CO, with my wife. Boulder has an airport. I have an airplane. I drove.
The flight time from Colorado Springs is about 30 minutes in my plane. The drive time is about 2 hours--more than that in heavy traffic: the quickest route takes you through downtown Denver. The chances of getting in an accident on the road are higher than we'd like to admit; the chances of getting in an accident in the plane are lower than most of us actually believe.
On the drive home, as traffic on the 10-lane highway ground to a halt (there was a Broncos game about to start), the following thought crept through my mind: I could have been home a half hour ago. And I've still got another hour and a half of driving ahead of me. Ugh.
So, why oh why did I take my car? The answer was simple: I needed a car when I got there. Sure, the plane would have gotten me to the airport with enviable speed. However, I wasn't going there to visit the airport, and the airport wouldn't have a car for me when I got there. Flying is great, but you have to leave your car at home.
Of course, the obvious solution is a flying car of one sort or another. This isn't a new concept--the first flying car was built by the Wright Brothers' contemporary Glenn Curtiss. His aircraft-automobile hybrid flew, but never really got off the ground. Other models that came later were a bit more successful: Molt Taylor's Aerocar even got FAA type certification; it was, and remains, the only flying automobile to achieve such recognition. Dozens of other "successful" flying car designs have been built, though few have achieved much recognition.
Of course, one of the major problems with these aerial automobile designs is performance and efficiency. My plane, a Mooney M20E, comes with a price tag in the mid $50k range, cruises at around 180mph, and get about 22 MPG. That's actually a very reasonable vehicle. It cuts a 2-day road trip down to about 4 hours (which, incidentally, is faster than even flying commercial when you factor in the airport time). The Aerocar does just over 100 mph--hardly a cross-country travel machine.
The quest continues, and new personal flying vehicles are being designed every day. Just for the fun of it, I'll go over a few of them for you:
This name always seems to come up first. Moller has been relentless in his PR campaign, and managed to continually convince investors that his design is only about 5 years away from public consumption. He's been saying that for much longer than 5 years now. He's built a prototype. It's shiny. It even hovers 50 feet of the ground, though never without being attached to a crane, just in case. As frequently cited an example as it is, it's highly, highly unlikely that he'll ever have a certified aircraft, and this design will simply never become mainstream.
Of all the flying car concepts, the CarterCopter is the most reasonable, viable, and well-developed of the lot. It also bears the least resemblance to a car. For reasons I'll explain in my next post, this is where I'd put my money.
Jay Carter's Carter Aviation Technologies is everything that Moller International isn't. Their prototype aircraft, the CarterCopter Technology Demonstrator has been flying bona fide test flights for 7 years while they tweak and improve the technology. It's not shiny, it's not red, and it's never been photographed in front of a giant American flag. Their design is, essentially, a helicopter with wings. Well, not a real helicopter, they went with a gyroplane because it's simpler, but the design will work just as well with a hover-capable helicopter.
Anyway, the idea is that a rotor is highly efficient during slow flight, while wings are great for fast flight. So they get their lift from the rotor when going slow, and from the wings at high speed. It's not a new concept, but these guys are using this prototype to create solutions for long-standing problems this design has faced. And they're doing a great job. It can take off and land vertically, but cruise at over 170 mph. The overall design allows for speeds well beyond the capability even the most powerful helicopters. It's also highly efficient and reasonably safe.
Jay Carter has no intention of selling or certifying an aircraft. Rather, he intends to develop, perfect, patent, then license the technology to interested parties. In the end, I'd expect the "flying car" of the future to be a vehicle like this--it flies from building top to building top like a helicopter, but costs a lot less and flies a lot faster.
Sokol A400 et. al.
There's a large number of individual designer-inventors who have come up with designs for either "flying cars" or "roadable aircraft," depending on your perspective. Few of these vehicles have been actually built, and some of them wouldn't even work. Others still sport truly innovative feasible concepts, like collapsible, telescoping wings, on the A400, or the compact, sleek simplicity of the PALV.