Where we are going we still need roads
As anyone who has ever studied the subject will tell you, the future is a concept, not a specific time or place. Quite appropriately, the future is all relative. At one point, the 1980’s was considered the future. But, once that decade came around, “the future” transformed into the present, leaving the future to become yet another distant horizon. Regardless of the numerous changes and advancements brought about during the 20th century, when thinking of the future, most would agree, we’re not there yet. But why is that?
Perhaps, it is because predicting the future is not as easy as it may appear. Things rarely pan out as the future of fiction would suggest. For example, in 1987, NASA was to have launched the last of its manned deep space missions. In reality America’s manned space program has more or less been placed on hiatus before we could venture past the Moon. Such predictions are based on the notion that based on what has happened in the past, all things being equal, the future will build upon the past to its upmost potential. Unfortunately, progress does not work on such a geometric progression.
Some inventions cannot operate in a vacuum. In order to be practical, some fantastic inventions require several aspects of society to be on the same page. If society is not ready, those inventions or concepts may face unsurpassable roadblocks on their way to the marketplace. The flying car may just be one of those inventions.
Nothing symbolizes the future like the flying car. To set your story in the future all you need is an establishing shot of a sky full of cars. But what would it take to bring the quintessential ideal of the future from fiction to fact? How do we get to the future skyway from here? To reach the heights of its potential, the flying car will require technological and infrastructural innovations.
Making a car fly is no simple feat. Unless you have access to a hover conversion kit or irradiated Flubber, you will need a new way to give a plane the versatility of an automobile. Both Terrafugia’s Transition and Moller International’s Skycar have come extremely close to doing just that. In both cases what has been invented is a “roadable” aircraft.
Scheduled for production in late 2012, The Transition, depending on which mode it is in, is either a light sport aircraft capable of taking off or landing at any public use general aviation airport with at least 2,500 feet of runway, or a multipurpose passenger vehicle capable of driving on any road, and utilizing any standard parking space or household garage. At first blush, it may appear that the Transition has achieved the dream. However, “Terrafugia’s philosophy is to design a vehicle for pilots that brings additional ground capability to an airplane instead of attempting to make a car fly.”
The Transition is quite remarkable, but its goal is to be a plane, not a car. The primary concern will therefore be focused on the Transition’s plane mode, relegating the viability of the car mode to the backseat. The Transition has a unique appearance in car mode. It will likely draw a lot of well deserved attention. This means most pilots would most likely not want to leave the Transition unattended for long periods of time, making it unlikely to be used on an average date night with a dinner and movie. Further, anyone who has ever piloted a plane will tell you, weight is one of the biggest considerations when planning a flight. Therefore the Transition will unlikely match the cargo capacity of the average family vehicle. Rather, Terrafugia’s Transition would be an excellent acquisition for any private pilot who wants to extend the freedom of the flight experience and avoid the hassle of coordinating ground transportation at either end of their journey. While the Transition has met its goal of a roadable aircraft, Moller International’s Skycar has set its sights higher. It is Moller International’s intention that the Skycar be an evolutionary step on the path to independence from gravity.
Moller International has addressed the problems of the flying car not once but twice. First with the M400 Skycar and a second time with the Autovolantor. The M400 Skycar is a powered-lift VTOL aircraft with a projected top speed of over 350 mph and a range of ~750 miles.
The VTOL technology certainly places the Skycar one step closer to its fictional counterparts. Unlike a conventional plane, the Skycar could conceivably launch from your own driveway, a standard feature on all flying cars of the future. Further, the Skycar is designed to be easy to operate. Unlike conventional aircraft, the Skycar pilot has only two hand controls, which he uses to inform the redundant computer control system of his or her desired flight maneuvers. Unfortunately, as things currently stand, it may be some time before the Skycar’s application matches its potential.
The FAA is currently working with Moller International to certify the Skycar under the powered lift category. If it is so classified, the FAA will only permit the Skycar to take off and land at airports and heliports. This dramatically reduces the potential use of the VTOL technology. Further, the Skycar, although roadable, was developed for short distance ground travel at low speeds as a means to conveniently transport it from storage locations to approved take-off locations and back. The Skycar ultimately only replaces the car if it maximizes the use of its VOTL engines. Even if its roadable range were expanded it would still have the same idol curiosity risks of the Transition. It is going to attract a lot of attention sitting alone at the grocery store parking lot. For all of its many virtues, the Skycar is another aircraft that has attempted to redefine the word car for its own purposes. The question remains, could a car be made to fly?
Moller International attempted to answer this question when it developed the concept of the Autovolantor The Autovolantor is exactly what every science fiction and fantasy fan has desired, a flying car. This concept vehicle was designed to answer the question, is it possible to apply the Skycar’s VTOL technology to a normal car. For their simulations, Moller International chose to apply their technology to the Ferrari 599 GTB. While their simulated design was feasible, at best, the Autovolantor would only be capable of short flights, giving it the ability to pop out of traffic and land somewhere less crowded nearby.  Ultimately the Autovolantor has the opposite problem of the Skycar or the Transition. Unlike those vehicles which performed better as a plane than a car, the Autovolantor works better as a car than a plane. Terrafugia’s Transition and Moller International’s Skycar are remarkable achievements, either one brings us closer than ever before to achieving the critical mass required to say, we are in fact living in the future. But is this as far as society will let us go? Are we to be forced to satisfice, or is there a way to have the true potential of these inventions realized?
As stated above, some concepts require society to be on the same page before they are truly viable. As discussed, the Skycar not only has the intended goal of replacing the automobile but also has the potential to do just that. The limited roadability would not be such a limitation if it were permitted to fly closer to its intended destinations. What is missing, however, is society’s commitment to see this invention through to its logical conclusion.
It is one thing to permit flying cars for military and emergency services, but quite another to overhaul bureaucracies, and embrace the challenge of creating new technology so that the infrastructure of how our airspace is used will permit the flying car into the mainstream. The FAA and NASA are studying a system to manage air traffic for smaller aircraft,  but the timetable for such a system, be it advanced computer transponders or a more complex GPS flight planning system, may be years away.
The future of the flying car may be in limbo, not because of technical limitations, it is possible the systems being studied by the FAA and NASA would keep our sky and streets safe, but because, apart from a few “fly in communities”, society in general is just not ready for it.
At this moment, for all their versatility, the vast majority of the locations we love to frequent via our cars are inaccessible to the flying car. Where we are going, we still need roads. In order to be truly viable existing airspace must be made accessible to the flying car. Existing locations need to be retrofitted to permit the flying car to land and take off. The flying car needs to be freed from the airport and permitted to join the rest of the personal vehicles we use in everyday society. None of this will be easy, inexpensive or nonintrusive.
While the inventors of the flying car have shown us all that they are ready, it will be up to society to meet them the rest of the way.