Why Airborne Cars Won't Fly

The car of the future still hasn't come to pass.

The car of the future still hasn't come to pass.

“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” Doc Brown tells Marty McFly as they load into the time-traveling DeLorean in the final minutes of Back to the Future. Sure enough, when they arrive in 2015, the skies of Hill Valley are teeming with cars.

From The Jetsons to Blade Runner, flying cars are a sort of film and television shorthand signifying that what you are seeing takes place in the future. It is assumed that our civilization will, in due course, cut the tethers that tie personal locomotion to an earthbound grid. In cars one can only move in two dimensions. In flying cars one can freely move in three. What course of progress could be more obvious?

Like Marty McFly, we’re all going to 2015—we’re almost there, in fact—and we still need roads. We don’t have flying cars yet. Why?

It’s not for lack of effort.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Wright brothers demonstrated the potential of heavier-than-air flying machines and Henry Ford proved that assembly-line production could make vehicles for the masses—and revolutionized personal mobility—with the Model T. To someone living in the 1910s or 1920s, the idea that a flying machine would eventually supplant the car must have seemed obvious. And though engineers and entrepreneurs embraced the challenge—usually with a determination that carried them through decades of mostly fruitless work—the monstrosities of transportation that they created fell surprisingly short of their promise.

The 1917 Autoplane, designed by the aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, is usually cited as the world’s first flying car. It had three wings, a boxy, car-like cabin, and four large wheels. The motor drove a propeller that was located, unlike on most planes, in the rear.

In functional terms, the Autoplane was much more “auto” than “plane.” It could do 45 miles per hour on the road (with wings removed) but it never flew. Some describe it as having “hopped” pretty successfully.

But the idea of the flying car was taking off on its own. In 1926, Popular Science ran an article titled “Latest Planes Herald New Era of Safety: With Inventors’ Producing Foolproof, Nonsmashable Aircraft, Experts Say We’ll All Fly Our Own Machines Soon.”

That same year, Henry Ford himself unveiled a flying machine, the Sky Flivver. The Sky Flivver was, in essence, a tiny plane (its fuselage was only 15 feet long) that could, with the addition of one wheel, be driven on roads. Ford hoped it would be his second revolutionary design of the century. It flew, but when a pilot died in a test flight, the project was abandoned. The vision persisted. “Mark my word,” Ford said in 1940, “a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile. But it will come.”

On the Moller website, you can watch the Skycar (tethered to a crane to appease the insurers), growl loudly as it hovers about 15 feet above the ground.

It did come, sort of. In the 1940s and 1950s, a number of successful flying machines were built that could shed their wings for surface driving.

Waldo Waterman’s Aerobile, Robert Edison Fulton, Jr.,’s Airphibian, and the famous Taylor Aerocar, built by Moulton B. Taylor, all functioned well mechanically. One Aerocar model was still flying as recently as 2008. But none of them took off commercially.

These early flying cars—now dubbed “roadable aircraft”—worked, but they suffered all the limitations of planes: they had to take off and land from airports, could only be operated by trained pilots, and didn’t serve the average person’s daily transportation needs any better than a car. Given their expense, there wasn’t the market for even very limited production. As The Jetsons took to the air, the idea of a popular flying car was as far away as ever. Progress on roadable aircraft, such as it was, stalled for decades.

But Paul Moller, a Davis, California, engineer, was working on a radical new design. In 1991, he unveiled a mock-up of the Moller M400 Skycar and boldly declared it could be flying within a year. Unlike the roadable aircraft of the past, the Skycar was a powered-lift craft. It would take off and land vertically, propelled by four ducted fans located where the wheels might be; it would hover in place when necessary; and it would reach speeds of over 375 mph in flight. Bright red and sleek, its design was compared to that of the Batmobile in the 1989 Batman movie.

The Skycar has received generous attention in the media, with stories in Popular Science, The New York Times, and countless others. In 2000, Wired reported that “Moller’s M400 Skycar continues to justify the early optimism,” although the author, David Pescovitz, noted, “it has yet to fly and has plenty of competition.” The competition has turned out to be the lesser problem. While every new account suggested that a functioning Skycar could be right around the corner, Moller pushed the dates back time and again.

Finally, in 2003, the Skycar performed a taped “hover test.” In video on the Moller website, you can watch the Skycar (tethered to a crane to appease the insurers), growl loudly as it hovers about 15 feet above the ground. Less than a minute later it wobbles back to earth. With over $200 million spent on development at that point, the Skycar almost seemed better in pictures. For a while, Moller was taking $995,000 refundable deposits on the Skycar. It even appeared in the Neiman Marcus online catalogue in 2005. Today, a short note on the “Purchase” section of the Moller website—“Moller International is currently not taking deposits on aircraft”—makes it clear that the schedule has been pushed back again.

Moller readily admits that the Skycar is “in limbo” until he can raise more money. Finding risk-tolerant investors is difficult. “We’ve probably spent $25 million just building the artificial stabilization system,” he explains. “How do you raise $25 million dollars for something that people know is going to be five or ten years away?” Or, indeed, for something people aren’t certain will ever arrive?

Moller isn’t the last person to work on flying cars, but most of the current projects have humbler ambitions. The Transition is a small plane with wings that fold in so it can be driven. Its manufacturer, Terrafugia, expects to deliver the first models in 2010. Even if that target is met (its only flight so far has been in an animated video), the Transition is designed for sport pilots; the company’s website states that it’s “not designed to replace anyone’s automobile.” Another recent entry, the Urban Aeronautics X-Hawk, is a powered-lift vehicle, much like the Skycar, but it is being marketed “mainly for urban rescue and medical evacuation.”

Cost will be a persistent problem for any flying machine in the coming decades. Aircraft are inherently more complicated—and expensive—than their earthbound cousins. And while driving is perilous enough, in flight any minor accident or malfunction, especially in an urban setting, has the potential to be hugely destructive and deadly. Mitigate these risks, as Moller has done with the many redundancies he’s built into the Skycar, and costs balloon accordingly. And even if you raise enough money to make a working prototype of your vehicle, making it affordable to the general public is another problem altogether.

Despite the challenges, Moller still believes flying cars will play a role in our transportation future.

“I think a world of tomorrow,” he told me, “would be made up of vehicles like the Skycar together with either electric cars or maybe plug-in hybrids.”

But with the new awareness of the importance of dense urban spaces and short commutes, a bigger, more extravagant personal vehicle doesn’t seem like it will be accepted as a viable transportation solution. It’s unclear if we will have garages in the future, much less the flying cars we once dreamed they would hold.

Photos courtesy of Moller International, USA