"This new millennium sucks! It's exactly the same as the old millennium! You know why? No flying cars!" – Lewis Black
Of all the far-out visions for the future provided us by popular culture (indeed, by this very magazine above almost all else), perhaps none is so conspicuously absent today as the flying car. Other sci-fi fantasies – the invisibility cloak, laser weapons, universal translators, 3-D printers – exist to some degree, if only on a lab bench somewhere. But the flying car, once considered the next logical step in personal transit, simply never took flight.
But now, for the first time since the age of Henry Ford, the flying car has a serious patron. And it's not some eccentric millionaire or overzealous garage inventor. It's the United States Department of Defense.
Back in April, DARPA put out a call for proposals seeking a vehicle with some thought-provoking features; a capacity of one to four passengers, enough sturdiness to go off-road, and – most intriguingly – full flight capabilities with vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL). Called Transformer, the program sought "terrain-independent mobility," not just so soldiers could get around physical obstructions, but also to help them avoid ambushes and that most pervasive threat in America's current military engagements: IEDs.
In essence, DARPA has asked for a flying Humvee, and they want it by 2015.
For a look back, see our gallery of flying cars throughout history from the pages of PopSci here
Some DARPA initiatives die quiet deaths. Others become NASA or the internet. Transformer lay quiet for a few months, but then the proposals started coming in, complete with futuristic but feasible-looking concept drawings: Humvees fitted with collapsible helicopter rotors or huge ducted fans or folding wings (or a combination of the above) sweeping over rugged terrain or sloping third-world cities, gunners hanging out the side door. You could almost hear Ride of the Valkyries playing over some unseen loudspeaker.
But these designs were different from the fanciful schematics that spring up in garages and on Web sites from time to time. Not in spirit or mechanics necessarily, but in the fact that they sought a concrete prize beyond the satisfaction of flight itself: millions of potential defense dollars to develop the prototypes, and perhaps many millions more in contracts should they succeed.
There are various explanations as to why the flying car has not already become a reality, but most plainly it seems we ran out of incentive (if not imagination). In the heady days of the 1920s, the flying car was a foregone conclusion: "Today events in the realm of aviation are tumbling along at such a pace that we can almost imagine ourselves spending next summer's vacation touring the air roads." These words, typeset in the November 1926 issue of Popular Science, detailed great strides in the machinery of flight that were bringing the technology down to the common man. The piece included a black and white depiction of Henry Ford next to his compact hybrid car-plane, the "Ford Flivver." According to Ford, his machine would "be brought within the reach of every man's pocketbook." He might as well have been talking about the Model T.
But it wasn't to be. By the time WWII ended, the endless optimism of the 1920s had been thoroughly blunted, first by the Great Depression then by the geopolitical struggles of the 1940s. Upon the post-war return to normality, a different kind of optimism reigned, tempered by rising Cold War anxieties. A military-industrial complex hungry for the best aeronautical engineers also fostered a new view of the sky not as a place to be cruised by the common man, but as an important strategic territory to be dominated by fearsome long-range bombers and rockets destined for space.
Besides, fuel was cheap, asphalt was abundant, and with a massive new interstate highway system connecting all the places people wanted to go, the automobile became king. A series of hybrid car-plane designs – most of them were really just planes with detachable wings – popped up during the '40s and '50s, but without a clearly defined need for personal flying vehicles the concept was relegated to the purview of science fiction writers and dreamers. By mid-century, personal flying machines went from feasible to fantastical.
But the idea, though pushed to the fringes of invention, never died. Fictional futurism ranging from Judge Dredd to the Jetsons has relied on flying cars to set the scene. The opening sequence to Futurama takes viewers on a first-person drive through the congested "skyways" of a crowded 31st-century metropolis.
Even Back to the Future Part II, the pop culture authority on future predictions, teased us with flying car technology – as well as hoverboards, self-lacing sneakers, and several other predictive technologies that have since come to exist in some form – and that was set in the year 2015. There's even a Facebook group titled "So it's 2010, where is my flying car bitch!"
The allure of personal flight isn't completely lost on regulatory agencies and aviation visionaries either. The FAA's relatively new Light Sport Aircraft designation allows pilots with relatively few flight training hours to pilot small aircraft under favorable conditions. The LSA designation – intentionally or not – creates a legal space for pilots with minimal training to operate light, non-complex aircraft at low altitudes, as well as a commercial niche for aircraft like the Terrafugia Transition, a four-wheeled folding-wing aircraft that is also drivable on city streets and fits neatly in a home garage.
But the Transition is a "roadable aircraft," not a flying car. DARPA wants a dual-mode vehicle that requires no runway or special infrastructure considerations. Though not stipulated specifically, ideally the Transformer would automate takeoff and landing so the operating soldier doesn't also need to be a pilot. Transformer must be efficient, achieving a range of 250 nautical miles on a single tank of fuel. And Transformer has a primary objective: to save soldiers' lives. That's not just a noble goal; it creates a high standard for safety as well.
DARPA is willing to open its purse for such a vehicle – up to $54 million over the life of the program – and that's what makes this attempt at the flying car so exciting. The Transformer Program removes three of the biggest obstacles that have plagued the flying car from its very conception, providing an immediate financial incentive to innovate, clearly defining a need, and seeking technologies that are within reach.
Overcoming the first two obstacles is easy enough for DARPA: the Pentagon provides the funding, and the need to protect troops from IEDs is lost on no one who follows the news out of Iraq and Afghanistan. But technology will be the real differentiator between Ford's Flying Flivver – which never saw production after a fatal crash during test flights – and the flying cars of the future.
In the crowded skyways of the future, safety would clearly be the paramount concern – no one would want the same number of cars on the road today zooming haphazardly through the skies above metropolitan areas. But automated on-board systems can simplify takeoff and landing for operators, and larger networked air traffic control systems could conceivably automate flight itself, moving vehicles around crowded urban skies while keeping them on safe trajectories. We're already hard at work on cars that safely navigate themselves – DARPA is a pioneer in this field, and Google recently revealed it has a fleet of self-driving cars – so it's not a huge leap to networked vehicles that navigate the skies in similar fashion. And should the weather turn bad, cities could ground traffic – we are talking about flying cars here after all.
The progress of the Transformer program points optimistically toward an increasingly aerial future for the common driver, as defense technology tends to roll downhill. If DARPA succeeds in providing the military with a flight-capable automobile, it's difficult to imagine a scenario where that technology isn't commercialized at some point. It certainly won't happen overnight (or in the next decade for that matter), but with the technology sitting right in front of us we would be foolish to keep our rubber restricted to the road.
Besides, we called it back in 1926: "How soon we shall fly our own machines depends, experts agree, on how quickly foolproof machines can capture public confidence. Once that confidence has been gained and public demand created, quantity production and lower prices will be possible. The wonderful history of the automobile will be repeated in the air."
I'm kinda wondering if this is actually going to gain any traction or go the way of the failed stealth ship.
Ah just build a flying saucer and be done with it.
Man, I love DARPA. I mean, I hate that they're military-based, but in essence they're a group of mad scientists with the money and power to actually make sci-fi inventions a reality.
And, as the article points out, it's not only shit that rolls downhill...
-IMP ;) :)
I predict that flying cars being used for fights isn't going to last long,if it's even succesful. It more suits civilian use. Why do I think so? Jet fighter planes. It was that simple! They're way too fast. The only way is to replace those clumsy propellers with specially developed jet engines that can switch from combusting mode to non-combusting mode and streamline the fuselage. But that means the range would be drastically reduced. Oh right, replace the gunner with an M61 Vulcan gatling and maybe, just maybe, add a few missiles. That's how it might last for military use. My design wouldn't pass for range.
...cant we just make a UFO with wheels already
Don't worry, the UFO like vehicles are out there.I've sat in my hot tub all summer long and have seen three...
You are cordially invited to see my StrongMobile Flying Car Project at www.strongware.com/dragon. You can view a 2-minute video of my full-size mockup model.
Notice the version with wing fans, envisioned to meet DARPA requirements.
Rich Strong (Major,USAF,Retired)
Any conversation I have about the future ends up with the flying car and Teri forming Mars. For the flying car we must do surgery with our wants with our needs. A design that only has the rich falling to their death on the poor in sixty mile per hour traffic is not automatically an improvement to our society. Large societies need a safe and reliable commute for everyone. For that I suggest a dual hybrid superconductor maglev vehicle. Technically this is flying, that is locked into a magnetic field. It is all weather even if the linear induction motor track is completely covered with ice, the vehicle is locked to the track so even the wind won’t blow you off, and can it can go up your building vertically to your apartment balcony/garage. This will make larger cheaper buildings to live in, and more distant cheaper communities to live in, and commute from. Drive on road or rail on the maglev track city to city at 200 to 400 miles per hour. But we must first find a way to make maglev’s more economical. So, we hybrid the vehicle one again by making part fly by wire plane. Yes, with a stumped winged vehicle we can fly the gaps between magnets using lasers and censors and networks to reduce the number of linear induction motors in the track. This could significantly reduce the cost of magnetic tracks. Analysis indicates the technologies exist now or in the near future to complete this vision if a maglev can be made significantly cheaper by this method.
As for Teri-forming Mars, at the rate we are going it’s probably going to prove easier to Teri-Form it than deciding to go there.
I love the idea of Flying cars like most of us. But they are a great fun fantasy that will not likely become common in the civilian world because:
Traffic control - in our two dimensional surface world we can easily fasten or paint traffic control where needed and limit vehicle routes as needed. Picture trying to do that in 3 open and free-flowing dimensions with no way to control routes or 'traffic' flow. I see chaos and carnage. If only for this reason, I agree with tmarti69.
Though the above caveat may not apply to military applications, these do:
1) Armor - short of a force field, watcha gonna do that's light enough to fly (sometimes) but will stop modern high velocity armor piercing stuff?
2) Take off - if you need 'outta here' you have to leave the relative safety of terrestrial cover and fly in the open until out of range and you'll make enough noise to alert the region you're transitioning to flying target mode. You'll be a big, slow clay pigeon for a while. Maybe all the dust or your invisibility cloak will help.
3) Can you imagine the amount of fuel required to fly a hummer?
I know. Black hawks already deal with the above problems, but then what does a flying hummer add? Spend the money improving black hawks.
Does anyone know how to save an article to favorites?
While the idea of flying cars is exciting, it will probably be many many years until a design has been perfected enough to be released to the public. There are many things to consider about how flying cars will affect the world. I think that if the idea is thought through well enough that it could be a positive development and contrabution to the world.
Are you insane? Just look at the MENSAs that are driving today. Do you really want airheads talking on their phones and puting on makeup to get into a three dimensional world of aviation? Can you imagine giving an driver/flying license test for a power failure to this crowd? Is there any situation where any of you would trust your lives by flying side by side with these fruit cakes? If you think upkeep on your car is expensive today try dealing with the FAA and their certified mechanics. This is an old idea that actually came true in the forties but was ruled stupid by everyone involved. As anyone who has ever had to buy a weapon system can tell you choose the job you want it to do and stick with it. There is no way this could ever compete with a chopper or a Hummvee. Pick one.
For those who raise common objections, I suggest reading the secetion about "Busting the Myths" in my website at
Combine this article w/ the one on 3-D printable cars that get 200 mpg, and we might just have an economical flying car in our future.
The flying car of the future was called the "wave" by Nostradamus.I think it will look like the car driven by Luke Skywalker
1) Crashing is less likely, because adding the third dimension to driving (up) exponentially adds to the area in which to put cars.
2) Automated driving, while difficult on the ground, becomes much easier in the air (fewer things to moniter/hit) meaning the driver would likely only be responsible for take off and landing.
3) It is never going to happen until gravity is broken. When a failing car means a plumeting death - this won't be feasible. When a broken engine means a slow decent - THEN - there is a chance.
A concept whose time has come?
A dumb idea that refuses to die?
This is a design that's always fun to play with.
Once ya try to build it - one tends to rediscover that reality bites.
Really, the military is gunna cook up a new toy...
Well, only "they" can afford the R&D.
Unfortunately, DOD, DARPA, ARPA, and a bunch of alphabet soup agencies has short memories.
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away, their DOD wanted to save money. They wanted to combine aircraft from all branches of their military. They wanted to eschew specialized agency specific craft. By committing to a common airframe, costs could be reduced. Less spare parts. The contract could mass produce airframes bringing down costs - eventually. Designs were generated, prototypes developed and flown. The airframe was made a reality. It was a fighter, it was an attack aircraft, it was a bomber, it was carrier compatible. About the only thing it could do was haul freight and deliver mail. It never saw deployment.
It did bomb - but, not very well.
It did dog fight - but, not very well.
It did attack - but, not very well.
In short, it was a flying Swiss Army Knife.
It could do anything - but, it was the best at nothing.
Ever try using the Swiss Army Knife saw to cut down a tree?
The flying Jeep-Hummer or the Drivable-Osprey is doomed to the same fate.
If it is a flying-drivable-armored-weapons-platform, It a gunna stick to the ground. If it manages to waddle into the air, It's going to sport the aerial agility of the Hindenburg. No sense in hidding in that hummer on the ground. Get it up in the air with the escape velocity of a hot air balloon. Nothing like a DARPA design skeet target to bob around in the clouds in.
Ok, on the flip side, make it nimble enough to fly. It's, at least as nimble and air worthy as an old HUEY chopper. It's got some degree of the same firepower - so, it's a force to be reckoned with. Now, put this critter on the ground. Fanned-ducted wings or Rotor-props = how's it supposed to move around with all that span.
Ya figure out a design where all the flying structure folds up. How long does it take to get the vehicle transformered from flight mode to road mode?
How much time do you think the enemy is going to allow you to reconfigure. Do you expect them to give you a time out?
Once in road mode, what does all that additional mass do to the vehicle's off road performance.
While on the ground - let's assume that (God forbid) some one should actually shoot at the "flying car." Since it had to be lightened (un-armored)in order to make it fly better, just how much damage can it sustain before it becomes un-flyable? How much more damage before it becomes un-drivable?
You've have combined the worst of both worlds.
You wind up with an armored car that can barely fly.
You get a flying platform with wheels that is one dandy little target on the ground.
DARPA should have fun developing it.
They may come up with some spin off technologies.
The only people that will fear it will be those flying and/or driving it.
Though the test pilots may have fun - if no one is shooting at them.
Check out the Maverick Flying Car by I-TEC.
Remember the Moller Skycar? Paul Moller has been designing the M-200 and M-400 Volantors for 50 years. Moller Internationals efforts are nothing but a pipe dream. They promise and promise but deliver nothing in the end. I invested in Moller and have nothing to show for it but some pretty paper stock certificates............
Henry Ford's "Flying Flivver" was not roadable. It was an advanced (for it's time), all metal, single seat, sport plane but it was only an airplane. Dispite this, the Ford company test pilot for the project used the plane to commute from an airstrip near his home to the Ford airport (now the Ford Test Track in Dearborn). Ford and the test pilot became friends. When the "Flying Flivver" crashed on a test flight and the pilot was killed, Ford, in his grief, canceled the project.
this url link will take you to a related PopSci article by Eddie Rickenbacker about aircars. You can scroll to page 30 to view it.
This flying car with variations is a story that will not die. It comes up every five years or so. The military application seems even dumber than the civilian versions. The armor required for today's military vehicles makes them even less likely as candidates for bolt-on lift systems. The additional components would destroy the maneuverability of the vehicle on the ground. DARPA or not, the combined requirements for land and air use are mutually exclusive for any mass-production vehicle. Yes, we could make flying tanks ... for 100 million dollars a piece. Do we need flying tanks? Not that much.
This is so simple, the problem is power to weight and wing area. Just use a Delta wing trike and belt down to a small light dif unit between the back wheels. All this stuff is available right now. Wings are fabric and fold up easily. Want to haul more troops and gear, just upsize.
Since DARPA wants to use this for IEDs why dont we just make our older Hummers remote control, drive from the air or ground, save lots of money and lives, just like the predator drones but ground mobile. Our patrols are to bait the enemy, why get our people killed? thanks for reading
It looks pretty awkward! :P