One Small Step for Flying Cars

By Jeremy Hsu | December 23, 2015 5:19 pm
Concept illustration of the TF-X flying car. Credit: Terrafugia

Concept illustration of the TF-X flying car. Credit: Terrafugia

A drone’s flying test may help pave the way for flying cars. In early December, U.S. regulators gave their approval for unmanned hover tests of a miniature flying car model made by the company Terrafugia. Such testing would provide feedback for eventually building a full-size version of a flying car capable of hovering for vertical takeoff and landing.

Contrary to some more breathless news headlines, this does not mean the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has cleared a hover-capable flying car for flight tests in U.S. airspace. Instead, Terrafugia only received special permission to operate a “one-tenth scale TF-X vehicle” under the classification of a small Unmanned Aircraft System weighing less than 55 pounds. The small-scale model of the TF-X prototype—basically a small drone—will have to operate at altitudes below 400 feet and at speeds under 100 miles per hour. Still, it’s a crucial step on the road to creating a flying car with the likeness of the futuristic vehicles seen in science fiction films such as “Back to the Future,” “Blade Runner” or the “Star Wars” prequels.

A full-scale version of Terrafugia’s TF-X would represent a flying car capable of parking normally in a car garage and driving on roads whenever it’s not airborne. The hybrid vehicle would supposedly have a price equivalent to high-end luxury cars and operational safety better than that of modern cars. In the air, it would have a range of 500 miles and a top cruising speed of 200 mph. And it would have hover capabilities so that it could take off and land on communal versions of helipads.

The TF-X won’t be ready for production for at least another decade. But within the next year or so, Terrafugia plans to begin selling its Transition vehicle that is described as a “roadable aircraft” or “street-legal aircraft.” Unlike the flying cars of Hollywood’s imagination, the Transition basically represents a personal aircraft that still requires a runway for takeoffs and landings, but can also fold its wings up to drive on roads.

Once a full-scale version of the TF-X is ready for flight, the FAA will have to figure out how it wants to classify the flying car under its current guidelines. That classification could make a big difference in terms of the flight time required for certifying any would-be owners of a flying car.

In 2010, Terrafugia managed to get the FAA to classify its Transition roadable aircraft as a light sport aircraft, despite the Transition being over the class weight limit of 1,320 pounds. That light sport aircraft classification means that Transition owners could operate their roadable aircraft after just 20 hours of flight training. Since 2010, Terrafugia has bumped up the proposed weight of the Transition from 1,430 pounds to 1,800 pounds and is once again petitioning the FAA for a waiver that would allow the Transition to be classified as a light sport aircraft, according to Aviation Week.

It’s uncertain how much the TF-X will ultimately weigh and how it will be classified by the FAA. But the TF-X will include autopilot functions that enable the flying car to automatically dodge bad weather or other vehicles in midair, avoid restricted airspace and generally fly in “automatic” mode to find its way to its destination. Such safety features may help convince the FAA that future flying car owners can handle their vehicles without requiring intensive pilot training.

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    You must loft it, keep it airborne, and land it, continually actively transporting the entire weight, vehicle and fuel. Air resistance varies as the square of speed. What keeps it in the air if one engine fails?

    VTOL, “A megawatt of power lifts you.” A megawatt is 1340 horsepower, a flat out Pro Stock racing car. Let’s kill it dead: Gasohol only – with pollution and noise controls.

    • Ludwig Goppenhamer

      Anti gravity technology will keep it in the air, of course

  • diogenes1147

    It’s about time. Now the govt. will make it impossible to run without all kinds of regs!

    • dickG

      Time, indeed.
      .
      It takes Congress time to dream up and enact those regulations. Time for regulators (bureaucrats) to implement them.
      .
      Time is THE most important factor.
      .

  • RadioOne

    What hogwash! This is the latest junk science replay of the ridiculous Moller Skycar.

  • RuckusSick

    This industry is actually about to start. I can’t wait, there are so many different applications for this technology. It’s going to be Moller, Terrafugia or someone but it is coming soon. I personally think that the Moller Skycar is closer to production because they tackled and overcame the main obstacle which is the amount of power the engines have to produce to give you safe lift.

  • http://quetediga.com Cesco Porcel

    I hope it is with clean energy. Terrafugia guys must be to explain to Elon Musk

  • mipak

    Jetsons look out!

  • darryl

    It seems like flying cars are like fusion generators – always 10 years away.

    -d

  • okiejoe

    I’m assuming that to operate one off the ground requires a pilot’s license and a lot of insurance.

  • Richard Lewis

    This is just what a terrorist would need to fly into the White House…You may be able to shoot one of these flying cars down, but five or more is another story. All they would have to do to get these pass security into Washington D.C., is to put the cars into a tractor trailer or some such vehicle then when they are a few blocks away from their target roll the cars out and fly them….but of course couldn’t unmanned those drones do the same thing?

    • GamerFromJump

      Are we going to stop EVERYTHING just because some primitive dipshit MIGHT use it? Here’s an idea: how about we keep Mo’s Murderous Minions AWAY from where the cars are?

      • William Braddell

        Valid point but easier said than done.

    • ericlipps

      It doesn’t take a flying car to fly into the White House; a small private plane could do it—though that would basically require either massive incompetence or outright collusion on the part of the legion of security personnel responsible for keeping aircraft clear of important D.C. buildings.

  • Reverend Joe Ruyle

    At the end of the video I thought that, with my luck, I’d come out of my office ready for the short drive / flight back home…… and my Terrafugia would be sitting on concrete blocks…….

  • Carl Hopkins

    We’ll have Star Wars X Fighters before we have this!

  • RuckusSick

    Moller has already been testing a “flying car” this year. The video is half way down this page: https://m.facebook.com/groups/31444130440/?refsrc=https%3A%2F%2Fm.facebook.com%2Fgroups%2F31444130440%2F&_rdr#_=_

    Check it out.

  • martinbrock

    I saw it fly in CGI, so it must be just around the corner.

    I’m no aeronautical engineer, but it doesn’t look remotely plausible to me.

  • David Litton

    If it still requires a runway and a pilots license then It’s not a flying car it’s an airplane you can drive! Not what we flying car enthusiasts want. Seriously though, we have had the technology to build flyin cars for 50 years.

  • Anita Kaur

    It would be great to see flying cars in action. The concpt is taking too long to come alive. However , a lot information i found in this link all flying car lovers would like http://aflyingcars.com/

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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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