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Flying cars: Waiting in the wings or poised for takeoff?

Aug. 1, 2013 at 2:26 PM ET

Image: Terrafugia Transition
Terrafugia.com / AP file
A Terrafugia Transition flying car prototype is seen in action in March of this year. The aircraft was on display this week at an air show in Oshkosh, Wis. “We wanted to demonstrate some of the technology and infrastructure that’s being deployed today that is actually making that Jetsons dream a reality,” said Carl Dietrich, Terrafugia's CEO and co-founder.

Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… well, if you were in Oshkosh, Wis., this week, it just might have been a glimpse of the future as the Transition flying car took to the sky in its first public flight.

“It was a huge, huge milestone,” said Carl Dietrich, co-founder and CEO of Terrafugia Inc., the company behind the Transition. “We wanted to demonstrate some of the technology and infrastructure that’s being deployed today that is actually making that Jetsons dream a reality.”

During the demonstration, which took place at AirVenture, an annual gathering sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), the Transition clearly lived up to its name. After flying over the crowd, test pilot Phil Meteer landed, pushed a button to fold up the vehicle’s hinged wings and drove off.

And while the Transition lacked the Jetson car’s bubble-top design or seats for four (and a dog), Dietrich and others believe it’s a viable prototype that will eventually lead us down the road — or runway — to a future where flying cars are not a dream but a reality.

That dream, in fact, has been around as long as there have been both cars and airplanes.

“Aviation and automobiles came out at about the same time,” said EAA spokesman Dick Knapinski. “Ever since, people have dreamed about something that they could drive but instantly fly when they wanted to.”

Those dreams have taken a bewildering variety of shapes, ranging from winged motorcycles to rotor-powered hovercraft to cobbled-together contraptions that would give Flash Gordon pause. Most never got off the drawing board, let alone the ground, but perusing the 100-plus prototypes on RoadableTimes.com is a testimonial to the persistence of the vision.

Image: ConVairCar Model 118 flying car
Getty Images file
A ConVairCar Model 118 flying car, pictured during a test flight over California in 1947, was designed by Theodore P. Hall for the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Company of San Diego, California, but never went into production.

It’s not surprising that so few efforts have come to fruition, says Jake Schultz, a technical analyst at Boeing and the author of “A Drive in the Clouds: The Story of the Aerocar,” which tells the story of Moulton Taylor, who designed and built one of the few flying cars that actually flew back in the 1950s.

“The difficulty of the task is difficult for people to comprehend,” said Schultz. “Part of it is the physics and the engineering and part of it is the bureaucracies of finance, insurance and automotive and aviation regulations.”

None of which seems to stop people from trying. In addition to the Transition, there’s the PAL-V, a three-wheeled gyrocopter that made its first test flights in the Netherlands last year, and the Maverick, a dune buggy-like vehicle with a propeller and parafoil that was designed to take missionaries into regions where roads don’t go.

Dietrich’s vision is both less lofty and more expansive. As a pilot himself, his goal is to provide a solution to the problem of bad weather, which grounds small airplanes as much as 30 percent of the time.

“If you’re flying and the weather comes in, instead of turning around and going home or landing and waiting out the storm, you can land, fold up the wings in a minute and safely drive to your destination or another airport to take off again,” he said.

As such, the Transition is clearly a niche product designed more for pilots seeking a roadworthy vehicle than drivers hoping to fly. The $279,000 price tag and the requirement to earn a sport pilot license will also serve to limit its commercial appeal.

Image: Terrafugia Transition
Terrafugia.com / AP file
With a price tag nearing $300,000, the Transition isn't for everyone ... yet.

Nevertheless, the company has already booked more than 100 orders, each with a $10,000 deposit. Pending certification from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the company hopes to sell its first units in 2015 or 2016.

In the meantime, Dietrich is already thinking beyond the initial target market of delay-prone sport pilots. In May, the company unveiled its vision for the future, the TF-X, a four-passenger flying car that would use electric propulsion and tiltable rotors to facilitate vertical takeoffs and landings and eliminate the need for runways entirely.

“Within the next decade, we could have a vertical takeoff and landing, plug-in hybrid flying car that will land in an open space like a parking lot,” said Dietrich. “It would fit inside your garage and you wouldn’t have to go to airports at all.”

According to Dietrich, the incorporation of Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) technology would also mean the vehicles could be essentially driverless, eliminating the need for a pilot's license and minimizing the likelihood of operator-error accidents.

Whether that will actually happen in 10 years or 100 years or not at all will depend on a host of factors, including available technology, regulatory requirements, cost constraints and consumer acceptance. But for today’s aviation innovators, the only way to get to that future is to start working on it now.

“I love the fact that people are taking things that don’t exist, visualizing a possible future and then actively working on bringing it to reality,” said Schultz, who has some experience with the subject as a member of the team that turned Boeing’s Sonic Cruiser concept into the 787.

Likewise, “there will definitely be an evolutionary process” for flying cars, said Knapinski. “Will this or that product survive that process? Boy, if I could guess that, I’d make a lot of money consulting.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.

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