Fly me to the shops: Sky cars are finally available

When US company Terrafugia unveils the prototype of its new car this July the $200,000 price tag will probably barely be mentioned. Not because this is a car to rival a Ferrari, but because it is one to soar above it. The Transition will be the first flying car. Or, as the independent team of ex MIT-trained aeronautical engineers that set up the company just five years ago prefer to call it, the first "roadable aircraft". By the end of the year, the 100 people who've pre-ordered the Transition are due to receive their model. It's street legal, offers easy storage in one's garage and does 30mpg whether on the ground or in the air.

"The challenge to more general aviation has been not only the high-cost – the purchase price of an aircraft, the hanger rental and running costs – and the skills required to pilot a craft, but also practical issues – moving the aircraft around on the ground and dealing with bad weather," says Richard Gersh, vice president for business development at Terrafugia, which is also designing a flying Humvee for the US military. "But with prototypes like this, and the others in development, each tackling the problem with different solutions, access to flight is coming down all the time. People have been thinking about personal air vehicles for decades and that remains a long-term vision. Now the barriers to entry as a pilot are lower than they have ever been."

Indeed, if a sci-fi vision of the future has us, Jetsons-like, taking to the skies as easily as we take to the road, a new generation of prototype craft is moving us closer to a world in which the idea of mobility is given new expression – through 3D space, as the crow flies, unhampered by designated and congested roads. "How much better would it be to have a vehicle that goes over congestion, that lets you go out of your door, take off, land in a parking lot and do your shopping?" asks Robert Bulaga, president of Trek Aerospace, which is pushing super-efficicient fan technology to develop a "personal flying machine". A fourth generation prototype of its craft has been built and tested and a control system now developed with Stanford University which would give it sufficient stability to even be flown hands-free.

Personal is the word too. Trek's Springtail vehicle is almost the kind you would strap on rather than step into. Certainly the Springtail suggests the Bell Rocketbelt jetpack that seemed so exotically ahead of its time following its appearance in Thunderball, and a Springtail predecessor, in fact, made an appearance in the Agent Cody Banks movie. New Zealand company Martin Jetpack has also been testing a similar fan-based vehicle since 2008, theoretically able to transport its pilot (sans passengers, golf clubs or groceries) for 30 minutes at 60mph and at 8,000ft, which is now in its final phase of development. Last year Time named it the "most anticipated invention" following a $12m joint-venture deal that plans to see an overseas factory built and making 500 Springtails a year by 2013.

"There is demand for such a personal product, if not a huge one," Bulaga reckons, discounting the inevitable interest from the cloak-and-dagger likes of DARPA, America's Department of Defense Research Agency. "Initially these will be machines more the flying equivalents of sports cars or motorbikes, with their users putting up with certain discomforts for the convenience and fun they'd bring. But they could eventually be a game-changer for the world in terms of mobility and the growing value of time. The movies have long promoted personal flight's benefits, so many people have some dream of it. It's surprising that it hasn't happened yet. A truly personal craft could be available within a few years."

Might personal flight really become a reality in the near future? NASA has predicted that some 25 per cent of the US population will have access to some kind of personal flying vehicle (through air taxis or an on-demand service) within as little as a decade, and that increased road congestion – a product of ever-increasing quantities of haulage, such that the average driving speed in the US now is just 30mph – will only ensure it happens.

Certainly a mix of new legislation and technology has, over the last decade, made it much more likely. Interest in developing suitable craft has spiked in America at least following de-regulation that has seen the introduction of a new "light sport" aircraft category, making flight accessible to those with around half the training required for a typical private pilot's qualification. It is a standard that is already spreading, with Europe also considering an equivalent. And massive reductions in the cost of advanced electronics, together with advances in lighter, more efficient power plants and carbon-fibre construction has, through computer modelling, made the design and building of suitable craft feasible.

Perhaps all that stands in the way of take off are matters of money, inevitably, and of perception. It is funding that is holding back two of the most promising vehicle prototypes, both spectacular in different ways. There is Moller Aircraft's ethanol-powered, four-seater VTOL (vertical take-off/landing) M400 Skycar, which, with its retro-futuristic look is as close to Flash Gordon as small aircraft get – capable of cruising well over 200mph, planned to cost no more than a luxury car and due its first system qualification flight this October, which will see it become a genuine proposition.

"The technology is already there to make flight available to everyone, and the appeal of having that hummingbird sense of freedom to use all this empty space above us is widespread," reckons the company founder Robert Moller, who, while developing the Skycar has picked up some 50 patents, including those for a ground-breaking composite fan technology and a computer stabilising system. "But although it's something people want, it isn't something the investment community understands yet. The climate is such that it wants buckets of money back in just a few months."

And he should know. Moller has spent $100m in research and development since he first set up his company during the 1960s. That may sound like a lot, but then Bell-Boeing spent $1.2bn on its V22 Osprey plane/helicopter hybrid – or, more precisely, just on creating its gearbox.

Then there is Icon Aircraft's Icon, a two-seater, folding-wing flying boat that one would take to the lake on a trailer behind the car and for which some 460 orders have been placed, despite the delivery date being four years away. "But it's a remarkable statistic that a third of those orders are from people who don't have any kind of flying qualification at all," says chief operating officer Steen Strand, who, as a measure of the company's seriousness, also counts among his colleagues the former CEO of Boeing. "These people have just said to themselves, 'I've seen this aircraft and now I'm going to fly'. And that's right. The aviation industry has its own slow, institutionalised momentum and it's taking outsiders to drive change. But there's no reason why flying shouldn't be the ultimate mass-market recreational activity as it was conceived as being in its early days."

Icon's biggest step towards this? Stripping out all the complexity of the cockpit to leave an environment that, by its very style and intuitiveness, looks approachable for your average car driver. As Strand puts it, the importance of creating an aircraft that looks "badass" is essential. "It's the same when you go to buy a car or a boat – the look inspires you to jump in, encourages you to believe you can take a ride," he says.

The confidence that such a design encourages may go some way to alleviating the obvious concern of safety – crashing at several thousand feet has consequences not envisaged at ground level, and many new generation craft might operate in what is bluntly referred to as the "dead zone", too high to surive a fall, too low for a standard parachute to be effective (though so-called ballistic parachutes may be an alternative). Although sufficiently high numbers of such vehicles to make crashes probable might not be expected for several decades, in the longer run there will be a need to develop anti-collision systems. Bulaga suggests that public concerns are likely to be alleviated by seeing such craft used by the military and emergency services before they become more widely available. Certainly flying is expensive too, "but then so is skiing, or scuba diving or motorsports," notes Richard Gersh. "And plenty of people take part in those."

"But perhaps the biggest hurdle is this idea that flying is only for an elite, that if you want to fly you have to 'know stuff' and that stuff can't be dumbed down," says Strand. "We've seen the same attitude in other industries, in computing and in photography, all these pros saying 'well that's not a real camera' when SLRs came onto the market, for example. Both industries have seen developments that have made what only experts have done more accessible. And, similarly, you can 'dumb down' flying intelligently. The fact is that the basics of flying are pretty simple, if the process is made simple for you. More and more people are going to discover that."

News
US comedian Bill Mahr
people
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Sport
football
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Life and Style
Models – and musicians – on the catwalk in Dior Homme for the men’s 2015/16 fashion show in Paris
fashionAt this season's Paris shows, various labels played with the city boys' favourite
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

    £15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

    Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

    Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

    Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us