Where’s My Flying Car?

Posted on Tue, April 14 2015

That question had been simmering among Internet discussion groups well before it appeared on the cover of the March 2008 issue of Popular Science magazine. The cover showed a couple of sleek sedans sprouting wings and control surfaces, flying around the Empire State Building in New York, suggesting the final scenes of the 1933 classic King Kong, only without the giant beast swatting them down. The phrase is really shorthand for a deeper question, namely, what happened to the optimistic predictions for air and space travel after the historic Apollo landings on the Moon, between 1969 and 1972? Why, after 45 years, are there no permanent colonies on the Moon? Why have none of the planned human expeditions to Mars come to fruition? Why can’t tourists take a trip to the Moon? Why does it take as long to fly from New York to Paris today as it did in 1969—even longer, if one counts the hassle of going through airport security? Why am I stuck in traffic, in an automobile descended from Henry Ford’s 100-year-old technology, on an Interstate Highway System that was designed in the 1950s? Why can’t I press a button, hop over the traffic jam, and fly directly to my driveway? For many of us at the Museum, the question seems odd. The National Air and Space Museum has not one but several “roadable aircraft” in its collections. Two are on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, and they are very popular with our visitors. One of the most intriguing is the Fulton “Airphibian” FA-3-01. In 1950, it became the first roadable aircraft—that is, designed to be used as both a car and an airplane—to be certificated by the Civil Aviation Administration. It was a high-wing monoplane with a four-wheel landing gear that suggested an automobile. For operation on the road, the driver/pilot removed the wings, propeller, and empennage by moving a set of locking levers. The craft could neither fly nor go down the road unless the levers and pins were in their proper positions. Several production models were built and flown—and driven—successfully. It was a technical but not a commercial success, and the project was abandoned in 1953. Today it sits near the supersonic transport Concorde—perhaps another example of  dreams outrunning economic realities.

Fulton Airphibian FA-3-101

Designed by Robert Fulton Jr., the Airphibian in 1950 became the first roadable aircraft approved by the Civil Aviation Administration.

Of course hindsight is 20/20, and there is no shortage of reasons why the roadable aircraft never caught on. The numerous safety and other requirements for a car add weight, which means the resulting machine will never have the performance of an equivalent aircraft that is not bound by those regulations. Likewise an aircraft requires instruments and controls that do not transfer well to road use, adding complexity and cost to the design. For the business traveler, a paradigm emerged of having rental cars available at most airports, so one can make a transition from air to road quickly in machines optimized for each medium. Nevertheless, the dream refuses to die. Recently a Massachusetts company called Terrafugia has announced a flying car, the Transition, which the company hopes to bring to market soon. According to the company’s website:

“The Transition® is the transportation of the future today.  A street-legal airplane that converts between flying and driving modes in under a minute, the Transition® brings a new level of freedom, flexibility, and fun to personal aviation. It gives the pilot the option to land and drive in bad weather, provides integrated ground transportation on both ends of the flight, and fits in a standard single car garage at home."

Skeptics have responded with the same criticisms as before, but hope springs eternal. We shall see if the concept works this time, finally giving an answer to the question posed by the Popular Science cover.

The Transition airplane unfolding

The Transition® unfolding.

The refusal by Terrafugia to accept the skeptics’ arguments, no matter how rational those arguments are, illustrates something profound about the nature of technology. In his provocative book What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly argues that modern complex technological systems, which approach the complexity of biological systems, develop goals of their own. More precisely, technology merges its goals with ours, yielding a combination that transcends either entity considered alone. Technology wants flying cars, colonies on the Moon, supersonic transports, and human expeditions to Mars.  Human beings, in symbiosis with technology, strive to make those dreams a reality, leading to a kind of “superorganism” that is both human and machine. In other words, we may see a successful flying car yet. Kelly’s thesis is not entirely new; versions of it can be found in the writings of the planetary scientist Carl Sagan, the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, and even Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek television series. It has been criticized, especially by those who feel that human beings have enough to do making basic technologies, like automobiles and commercial aircraft, work economically and safely. In the meantime, good luck to companies like Tesla, Space-X, and Terrafugia for daring to dream. And the next time you are at the Udvar-Hazy Center, have a look at the Airphibian, or the Waterman Aerobile #6, another roadable aircraft that received FAA certification in the experimental category in 1957, but like the Airphibian, was not a commercial success.

The Aerobile was a two-place, high-wing, cabin monoplane with a transmission drive system that operated the propeller in the air and the rear wheels on the ground.