Someone Has Built the Ultimate 1950s Fantasy Vehicle All Over Again

Terrafugia's prototype blocks the bike lane . Photo: Mary Jordan/Flick
Congestion? This flying car will fix it! Photo: @Mary Jordan

UPDATE in fourth paragraph about takeoff and landing space.

This photo pretty much says everything that needs to be said about the absurdity of the flying car.

I wouldn’t even bring it up except a flying car salesman was the man of the hour at an otherwise (mostly, er, somewhat) serious daylong forum on transportation issues yesterday sponsored by the Washington Post. The flying car in question was parked outside the building, blocking a bike lane on 14th Street.

Carl Dietrich of Terrafugia (“escape the earth” in Latin) worked hard to convince the audience that what he acknowledged has long been a “pop culture joke” was a real, serious answer to the real-world problem of traffic congestion.

Not that we need to get into the numbers, but a Terrafugia plane required a third of a mile of empty runway to take off when it first — ahem — launched in 2009. More recent reports put it at 100 feet. I tried calling Terrafugia to confirm the figure, but no one picked up. I’ll let you know if I get a response to my email. (UPDATE 10/23: Alex Min of Terrafugia replied, “The TF-X will be a Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) vehicle so there will be no need for a runway. Much like a helicopter, any suitable landing area will be sufficient, but you still have to abide by FAA regulations.”)

Indeed, all of Terrafugia’s promotional materials show personal airplanes flying above farmland, and when the wings retract the pilot retreats home to a suburban single-family McMansion where the vehicle fits conveniently inside a standard-size garage.

Hi honey, I'm home... in my completely ridiculous contraption! Photo: ##http://www.terrafugia.com/aircraft/image-gallery##Terrafugia##
Hi honey, I’m home… in my completely ridiculous contraption! Photo: Terrafugia

Terrafugia’s model runs on regular automotive gasoline, not aviation fuels, making it “one of the greenest, most environmentally-friendly airplanes in the world,” according to the company. Of course, it also has just a two-person capacity, and perhaps we should be comparing its greenness to the forms of land-based transportation it seeks to replace.

Challenging the audience to tackle big problems like congestion with “bold,” “radical” solutions instead of “small incremental changes,” Dietrich suggested that flying cars had the ability to “fundamentally increase the capacity, flexibility, robustness, and speed of personal transportation” — with a marked emphasis on the word “personal.” It’s a door-to-door solution, he said, and it operates on your own schedule.

However, Dietrich does recognize that the cost of the flying car is prohibitive for most households, so he suggests a fleet of flying car taxis. Terrafugia: It’s like Uber, but for flying cars…

…and nothing at all like Moulton Taylor’s Aerocar, “at home on highways or skyways” back in the 1950s:

  • BlueFairlane

    It’s too ridiculous to even justify a snide comment.

  • BBnet3000

    Tow it.

  • David Marcus

    It’s an expensive toy, no more of a threat to livability than any other private plane. After all, you still need an airport to takeoff and land. I say we let the engineers of this project have fun and focus our ire on bigger issues.

  • RoyTT

    Is it really such a crazy idea? We wouldn’t need freeways any more. And buses and bikes could be the only users of roads, cutting accidents rates to near zero.

  • BJToepper

    I’m a pilot. Before training for my license, I had all kinds of unrealistic notions of what planes could do. Afterwards, I’m pretty sure the car will be the primary mode of powered transport for private individuals for a very long time, with the plane probably never. Consider:

    1) Planes are slow. If you’re mostly familiar with commercial flights, you’ll think planes are fast. But small planes have just a fraction of the speed of jets, require you to preflight them, and require you to get to and from an airport on both sides. For example, Santa Monica to Palm Springs is a one-hour flight, with a realistic total travel time of about two hours, the same as driving. Longer flights save more time, in ideal conditions, but I’ve heard stories of pilots in headwinds watching cars below passing them up. Driving is usually not much slower for the distances most private individuals fly, and more convenient when you arrive.

    2) Planes are expensive. You’ll burn through 5-10 gallons of fuel per hour, or something like $35-$70 per hour at current prices. Then there’s maintenance and tie-down costs.

    3) Planes are dangerous. We mostly thinking of flying in commercial terms, with all their safeguards and wonderful equipment. That kind of flying is very safe. But private-pilot flying has a much poorer safety record, more dangerous even than driving (many pilots will dispute this assertion — you can read some stats for yourself here: http://philip.greenspun.com/flying/safety ).

    4) Planes require a lot of training. We are earth-bound creatures. Flying is non-intuitive to us, and requires lots of experience to overcome our inherent perceptions. I never understood this until one day I thought the plane was straight-and-level, but the instruments were telling me we were in a steep bank. That is vertigo, and it’s really weird.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    If George Jetson can fly, why can’t I?

  • thielges

    The amount of training and effort required to fly a small aircraft is an order of magnitude greater than that required to drive a car. Most motorists can’t be bothered to check their oil twice a year. Good luck getting them to do a preflight check twice daily.

    You also bring up a great point about time savings. Even for moderate trips like PS to LA, there is not much time savings. This makes no sense for commutes unless you’re commuting over 200 miles.

  • baklazhan

    I had the opportunity a few years ago to take a short trip around the outskirts of the Bay Area in a 4-person plane. A stop for lunch (at an airplane meetup of sorts), a stop at a historic airfield with a museum, a stop for gas, then home. It was a fun experience.

    It occurred to me then that the feeling may have been similar to what people felt in the early days of automobiles: you could go more-or-less where you pleased, traffic was low-to-nonexistent, views were good, and it got you well off the beaten path. It’s the freedom of the open road that no longer exists on the actual roads.

    That’s probably part of what attracts people to this concept.

    Of course, I don’t see much hope of it ever becoming mainstream. Even if the maintenance and training hurdles were overcome (and those are big ones), and the costs were brought down, it would still run into the same problem that car culture did: as soon as it became popular, you would have traffic, you would need huge parking lots, and once the novelty wore off you’d get pretty sick of the noise and the day-to-day annoyances of using the things.

  • rowdycmoore

    And instead the accidents would be taking place in the air, causing not just a danger to the people up there but also down below where we would be at risk of deadly falling debris. You wouldn’t be eliminating accidents; you’d just be moving the reckless drivers to a place where they would be even more dangerous.

  • Joe R.

    As long as it depends upon humans to pilot, yes, it’s a crazy idea. Most people can’t even drive a car in two dimensions, never mind fly in three. What will happen is these things will be crashing left and right into buildings. Sure, cars occasionally do that now, but fortunately this can only happen at ground level at (relatively) slow speeds. What happens when someone’s personal air conveyance flies into someone else’s 17th floor apartment at 150 mph? Basically, until you have some means to totally automate flight from takeoff to landing, this idea is going nowhere.

    Even assuming we have a master computer to keep these things from hitting buildings and each other, how they’re powered is a major showstopper. Cars are at least amenable to being powered by batteries. Nothing that flies which carries passengers is, or will be with any battery technology likely to be on the horizon soon. Therefore, these can never be green in any sense. They will also be noisy as heck, especially when they’re coming in for a landing.

    Finally, given the typical trips people take, what’s the point of flying? The time savings will typically be seconds or minutes over driving, if that.

    This is a solution in search of a problem. I maybe can see limited numbers of these being made for the military or law enforcement, but they make just about zero sense for the average person.

  • Velocipedian

    “I had the opportunity a few years ago to take a short trip around the
    outskirts of the Bay Area in a 4-person plane. A stop for lunch (at an
    airplane meetup of sorts), a stop at a historic airfield with a museum, a
    stop for gas, then home. It was a fun experience.”

    Funny, that’s how I feel on my bicycle every weekend in Chicago!

  • Steve Davis

    With this thing parked in the 14th street bike lane all damn day, I was about flippin ready for the transportation of the future to quit blocking the progress of the transportation of the present.

  • BJToepper

    Some battery electric aircraft are in experimental stages:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/impossible-electric-airplane-takes-flight/

  • BlueFairlane

    It always bugged me when George Jetson’s flying car turned into a briefcase and he carried it inside. We all know the briefcase would still weigh the same as the car. It completely destroyed the believability of the show.

  • davistrain

    Another one of those concepts that looks cool as an “artist’s rendering” on the cover of Popular Mechanics and similar publications, but is as likely to succeed in the real world as the “atomic powered locomotive” that adorned the cover back in the same era (1950s).

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Plastic.

  • what_eva

    and what about when he opens the wrong briefcase?

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