October 21, 2013
Anyone who’s ever wondered why technology hasn’t delivered a mass-produced flying car for every man, woman and eager teenager should take a look at the Aeromobil, a prototype that’s being developed by Slovakian inventors.
To its credit, it’s one of the most stylish and gorgeous drivable aircrafts produced to date. In a promotional video (above) of version 2.5′s test flight, released last month, the “street” airplane is seen elegantly easing out of its curbside parking spot, fluidly navigating city streets and highways before unfolding a pair of mechanical wings and shifting into its highest possible gear. The video seems to be one of those ultra-slick and overly glossy glimpses of the future—that is until the time comes for the sexy contraption to do its thing.
No amount of camera tricks can conceal the fact that the Aeromobil looks downright unsteady as it struggles to keep its balance while gliding barely a few meters off the ground. The clip then ends with an oddly ominous quote from automotive pioneer Henry Ford in which he states, “Mark my word: A combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.” I know the crescendo nature of the presentation was obviously meant to kindle a soul-affirming kind of excitement, but I can’t help but feel an unnerving sense of doubt (especially considering that the project has been in development for about 20 years).
The Aeromobil is the brainchild of former Audi, Volkswagen and BMW designer Stefan Klein and Juraj Vaculik, whose expertise comes primarily from working in advertising. The demonstration was carried out in hopes of drawing in investors and the interest of potential manufacturers. While it’s been the Terrafugia concept that has received much of the attention over recent years, perhaps the winged car’s sleeker aesthetics and aerodynamic design will give it an edge.
The fantasy of living in a world where cars fly isn’t just one of those impractical sci-fi dreams that make for fun cartoons. (Check out the Helicar—an invention thought up in 1923 to remedy New York City’s traffic.) Inventors have made it their quest for decades now. Aeronautical engineer Moulton Taylor produced the Aerocar in the 1950s (shown in the newsreel, above) that achieved a cruising speed of about 100 miles per hour. And some of the most powerful and well-heeled power players in aviation have put their weight behind efforts to build a land- and air-capable beast. The Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and some esteemed research universities tried unsuccessfully to get such a project off the ground, and Phantom Works, the advanced defense and security division of Boeing, had been working on a control system that would enable a four-wheeled flyer. Even the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has sought funds to produce a flying SUV called the Transformer (TX).
But trying to hybridize a car and airplane can be akin to figuring out how to cross-breed a catfish with an eagle. The point being that they’re two completely different animals and the unique attributes that serve particular functions make it trickier to incorporate others. As evidenced by Aeromobil’s video, one of the most vexing issues is coming up with an adequate control and stability system in what’s primarily a road vehicle.
“Most prototype flying cars lack two key ingredients needed for success: They don’t look very good, and they fly even worse,” writes Stephen Pope of Flying magazine. “The new Aeromobil 2.5 out of Slovakia at least has overcome one of these shortcomings. From certain angles, the styling of this flying sports car is simply stunning. Unfortunately, based on the video of its maiden flight, it would seem that stability in the air continues to be a major challenge for roadable aircraft.”
Rob Bulaga, president of Trek Aerospace, another company involved in developing a flying car, told the Economist, “It’s just basic physics. Any vehicle that takes off and lands vertically is unstable.” Computers are needed to constantly adjust the aircraft to allow for any kind of stability, otherwise, he adds, gliding alone is like trying to balance on a beach ball.
Additionally, there are often-cited concerns, such as the potential for high rates of fatal accidents. The website Carinsurance.com estimates that the average automobile driver gets in three to four accidents over the course of their lifetime. And since humans already have a hard enough time steering on land, imagine mid-air errors or technical malfunctions causing people to suddenly plummet from the sky.
Ironically, while Henry Ford’s prediction might very well come true, it can sound more like a warning now than a hopeful endorsement.
Editor’s Note: Originally, the use of a quote in the post from Rob Bulaga, president of Trek Aerospace, suggested that the Aeromobil takes off and lands vertically. The flying car, however, is not a vertical take-off and landing aircraft, like a helicopter, and we have updated the post to reflect this.
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