Dude, where’s my flying car?

By Cameron Jimmo

Who hasn’t sat frustrated in traffic, daydreaming of engaging that little, red button on the steering wheel and flying home? Since the airplane became a prominent means of transportation, there have been visions of combining aviation and automobile technology to create the ultimate vehicle: the flying car. For decades this idea has pervaded society through all forms of media and fiction. The question is: Why hasn’t it been made a reality?

While the idea of a flying car has always been cutting-edge, it has seemed to take off with little more than overexcited imaginations. Admittedly, few have taken interest in creating this kind of vehicle. For example, a prototype aptly dubbed Aerocar was first designed in 1949, and its detachable wings and tail unit allowed the user to transform the automobile into an aircraft within minutes. Aerocar’s continued development allowed it to be certified by the Civil Aeronautics Administration in 1956, and its later models were able to reach speeds over 60 miles per hour on the road and over 100 miles per hour in the air.

Yet the Aerocar–and numerous other prototypes that followed–never became available through mass-production. Dr. Rahim Benekohal, a professor within the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department here at the University of Illinois, feels that any hopes of distribution were and still are far from realistic: “It was just a generalized idea based on the aviation technology at that time and assuming that it can be brought down to a consumer level.”  

The marketability behind a flying car seems undeniably ridiculous: its cost combined with the necessary insurance would be unfathomable, and road/air traffic regulations would have to be changed drastically. “We already have problems with airspace near busy airports.” Dr. Benekohal said, “How could we put all these flying cars in the sky and expect it would work?” Still, the major deterrence would have to be the problem of human navigation. Already, human response-and-control in an automobile is riddled with error, and one can only imagine the disastrous results of having people adapt to piloting an exponentially more complicated machine. 

Currently, however, there has been a focus on replacing human inefficiency with computer proficiency. Approaching future transportation, Dr. Benekohal believes that “Intelligent transportation systems are initiatives that have great potential…” Steps already taken in this direction can be seen through projects such as a self-driving car being developed through a Google research program. Utilizing artificial intelligence, GPS navigation and a wide variety of sensors, seven of these “Google cars” have each accumulated 1,000 driving miles without any human intervention.

It seems that these intelligent transportation systems have rekindled the flying car flame because shortly after these self-driving cars became public, the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced its own approach to smart-transportation: a self-flying Humvee. Labeled the Transformer X, it is the brainchild of military contractors such as Lockheed Martin and universities such as Pratt and Carnegie Mellon. These vehicles will be used for military transportation and will be able to fly, carrying approximately 1000-pound loads, for up to 250 miles. Concerning its self-flying capabilities, the agency states that “It is envisioned that guidance and flight control systems will allow for semi-autonomous flight, permitting a non-pilot to perform [vertical takeoffs and landings], transition into forward flight, and update the flight path in response to changing mission requirements or threats.”

It seems that with projects such as the Transformer X, the long-running absurdity of flying cars may be coming to an end. Utilizing self-controlled transportation systems, these vehicles begin to seem practical as they overcome the obstacle of human piloting and navigation. But with DARPA developing the Transformer X for militaristic purposes, the impracticality of a flying-car at a consumer level still remains apparent. It’s going to be a long time before we can “George Jetson’” our way around town.

Sources

Greenberg, A. (2010). Forget Google’s Self-Driving Cars. The Pentagon Is Building A Self-Flying Humvee. Retrieved October 13, 2010 from Forbes: http://blogs.forbes.com/ andygreenberg/ 2010/ 10/ 13/ forget-googles-self-driving-cars-the-pentagon-is-building-a-self-flying-humvee/. 

Markoff, J. (2010). Smarter Than You Think – Google Cars Drive Themselves, in Traffic. Retrieved October 10, 2010 from New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/ 2010/ 10/ 10/ science/ 10google.html?_r=2&partner=rss&emc=rss&pagewanted=all. 

Taylor Aerocar III. (2010). Retrieved October 10, 2010 from Museum Of Flight: http://www.museumofflight.org/ aircraft/ taylor-aerocar-iii