Whatever happened to the flying car?

Low expectations keep personal flying vehicles grounded in the age of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Paul Reeves

Topics Science & Tech

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In most product areas, the current marketing mantra is that the product should be aimed at customers’ ‘emotions’. This is particularly important, apparently, for premium automobiles. At a presentation given by the project manager of Future Concepts Vehicles at Jaguar back in February, attendees were told that ‘emotion matters’ should be addressed by appealing to distinctly ‘British’ characteristics such as ‘rebelliousness’, to be ‘different’, to be ‘the first of a kind’ and to be ‘irreverent’.

Whether such characteristics do define what it is to be British today is debatable. What was certainly disappointing was how these traits were represented as a concept vehicle, the RD6 (1). Features included backward-opening ‘suicide’ doors and a top speed of 156 miles per hour (mph). What seemed to get the future concepts project manager most excited, and myself equally depressed, was a ‘military aircraft bomb release’ style ignition button fitted into the gear change, marked out with snazzy military yellow and black ‘danger’ markings.

I couldn’t resist asking the manager from the boldly named Future Concepts whether his distinctly British characteristics, such as to be ‘first of a kind’, might be better served with some bolder vision – such as, for example, an ‘automobile’ that could leave the ground? He didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand – but I imagine he won’t be putting it into practice any time soon.

Being a child of the 1960s, one of my earliest cinema recollections involved being taken to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. From the 1970s, I vaguely recall a flying car in one of the Roger Moore James Bond movies. The 1980s brought the oppressiveness of the flying cop cars in Blade Runner, to be followed up in the 1990s by the faintly ridiculous flying taxis in The Fifth Element.

It does seem disheartening that the only twenty-first century manifestation of a flying car appears to be a mechanical special effect on the London West End stage, representing a ‘magical’ car of questionable aerodynamic properties from a half-century old children’s story (2). Was it not possible that we could progress further than this and turn one of the few retro transport ideas of the 1950s and 60s actually worth having – unlike the rehashed pastiches of Mini Coopers and VW Beetles – into reality?

Fortunately the idea of a flying car has not died completely. In a generally optimistic article in the New Scientist, technical writer Mike May covers the history of ‘flying cars’ – or what could be termed, in a world of SUVs and MPVs, PFVs (personal flying vehicles) (3). Early flying cars and some current designs are based on the (relatively) simple addition of detachable wings to a modified design of a standard car. As one of May’s interviewees points out, the problem with these designs is that you ‘don’t get a wonderful airplane’ and ‘you don’t get a wonderful car’. It might be added that you also need a conventional runway for take-off.

For me, the hero of PFVs has to be Paul Moller, who has spent the past 40 years designing, initially building and test-flying vehicles shaped like flying saucers, capable of vertical take-off and landing. His design has evolved into the M400 Skycar, a full-sized prototype that has already flown under remote control. The ‘car’ is powered by four engines, similar to standard car engines, which power enclosed fans in rotating nacelles (providing downward and rearward thrust). Moller’s next step is to develop engines powerful enough to allow the Skycar to carry passengers safely. The second key part of the Moller design is the computerised control system, which will allow anyone to pilot his craft as easily as a road car (4).

Of course, the technology to produce a practical PFV is only one small step in the direction of a flying car that you or I might be able to buy and fly. Today’s ‘make do with less’ climate makes such a possibility seem even more remote – as summed up by a letter responding to Mike May’s article, titled ‘Flying insanity’: ‘These flying cars are an incredible achievement. It must be quite hard to take all the things that are wrong with conventional cars and make them even worse…fuel…consumption…congestion…air pollution…noise pollution…visual intrusion…safety…driver arrogance.’ (5)

Why not add ‘and what if a terrorist got hold of one?’. A measured response might argue that PFVs could reduce congestion and even reduce the number of new roads required. Not to mention the most obvious benefit: getting from A to B at a potentially higher speed, together with easier access to remote places.

One of the advantages of developing PFVs at the present time lies in the level of computer software and hardware that now exists. In particular, computerised control systems have a large part to play, from the point of view of making the pilot/driver’s job manageable, up to and including having complete control of the vehicle from take-off to landing if required, and from the related perspective of general public safety. Information technology (IT) also plays a significant role in the design, virtual prototype modelling and manufacture of such vehicles, as it increasingly does for existing aircraft and automobiles.

It is clear that we are on the brink of having the design, manufacturing and infrastructure technology to introduce PFVs, confirmed by the fact that NASA takes the concept seriously enough to have established a personal flying vehicle programme (6). The idea of PFVs is also a direct challenge to the low expectations that currently dominate discussions about transport and mobility. This recalls to mind the marketing criteria of Jaguar’s Future Concept Vehicles department – to be different, rebellious, first of a kind, irreverent. What better way of really meeting these ideals than producing the world’s first commercial PFV?

If a company such as Ford really wanted one of its subsidiaries to target the ‘rebels’ market honestly and confidently, it could start by getting together with the Paul Mollers of this world and developing a Future Concept Vehicle worthy of the name. It has been said that Moller’s Skycar resembles a red Batmobile. Maybe – but as the designer Stephen Bayley recently reminded us, Jaguar is a glorious backlist of expressive shapes (7). Bayley, incidentally, was also imploring Jaguar to take a ‘bold leap forward’ to something such as a ‘city car’ (a Jaguar London) or a focus-sized Jaguar for the iPod generation. Hardly, in my opinion, ‘bold’.

The classic Jag is the E-type from 1961, which was heavily influenced by the racing D-type of 1955. At least in part, the expressive lines of the sporty Jaguar derive from the pragmatic science of automotive aerodynamics and the pursuit of speed. Perhaps, then, Moller’s Skycar is more evocative of the buried science behind the E-Type, rather than the 1960s retro naffness of the Caped Crusader’s ‘wheels’, which didn’t even have the imagination to fly.

To achieve freedom in the third dimension, what is needed is the commoditisation of the third dimension. Henry Ford achieved this for land-based transport in the early twentieth century, by using automobiles. Is it not time to achieve this for air-based transportation in the twenty-first? The atmosphere is a greatly underutilised resource, releasing us from many of the constraints of land-based transport. It may be seen as a geek’s dream today, but as with most new technologies, it is not until they have started to be widely introduced that the unimagined and truly revolutionary uses and benefits become clear. The main thing that industry lacks in order to achieve this aim is the vision and confidence to make the dream a reality.

Paul Reeves originally studied aeronautics and now works at the University of Warwick, researching collaborative product development at the International Automotive Research Centre (IARC). The opinions expressed here are entirely personal and do not reflect those of the IARC.

(1) See the Jaguar R-D6 concept car on the Jaguar website

(2) See Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Palladium Theatre, London

(3) ‘When jeep meets Jump Jet’, Mike May, New Scientist, 14 June 2003

(4) ‘When jeep meets Jump Jet’, Mike May, New Scientist, 14 June 2003. Also see the Skycar website

(5) Martin Peirce, letter, New Scientist, 19 July 2003

(6) See more on NASA’s Personal Air vehicle Exploration project

(7) ‘Jaguar Needs a Bold Step forward’, Stephen Bayley, Independent, 25 May 2004

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Topics Science & Tech


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