Decoding Design

The hurdles--and advantages--of designing flying cars

The hurdles--and advantages--of designing flying cars

Posting in Architecture

Cars that can morph into planes vice versa--these have long been sci-fi fantasies. But transportation design is seeing fresh innovation--and challenges--in the field of 'Light-Sport' planes.

A flying car design from the 1940s

We've covered the promise of so-called "flying cars" on SmartPlanet before and at length, and now, one of the more high-profile, contemporary examples, the Terrafugia Transition, is actually scheduled for deliveries this year. A new report in The Economist says that 100 of these $279,000 vehicles, which run on gas and have wings that fold up neatly when driven on the ground, have been reserved.

As the Transition hits the market--and roads and air--the design challenges, as well as the advantages, of creating flying cars are becoming as clear as an empty street or a cloudless sky.

The Economist's analysis of the flying car industry today offers a helpful, brief history of the field. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced the "Light-Sport" category in 2004 to encourage inventive new aircraft design as well as allow more pilots to obtain licenses cheaply. And as a result, more than 120 new types of these planes have been introduced since the category was established.

The Terrafugia Transition, with wings folded

These range from the more traditional-looking Transition to the Hoverbike (also featured in The Economist's report), which honestly doesn't seem like a flying car, or a flying bike, for that matter. Here's a look at the vehicle, in a recently posted video from its inventor, Chris Malloy:

Note that it's not intended for general use (although after watching the clip, it might seem like a fun thrill ride). Instead, with a price tag of $50,000, it's meant as a cheaper alternative to helicopter cattle-herding, specifically.

Clearly, the "flying car/bike/cattle herder" field is quite broad, and not without hurdles. Here are some of the main design challenges that potential flying car creators must consider, based on The Economist's report:

  • efficient motors and control systems are needed to manage stability during flight; in fact, some flying cars in development have only made flight tests while tethered to other vehicles because of their instability
  • pilots' bad road-driving habits that might transpose to the air in a flying car are likely to be exacerbated; for instance, in a car, if a driver makes a mistake with a steering wheel, it directly affects the car's forward or backward path only, but in a plane, moving a control incorrectly affects a plane's flight path in three directions
  • there are late-night and bad-weather flying restrictions on Light-Sport planes, meaning they are likely not able to perform well under these conditions; this suggests that current examples are merely "transitional" designs, somewhere in between full planes and full cars, and not true hybrids of both

Still, there are reasons why designers--and consumers--might be excited by the possibility of flying cars. Here's why:

  • today, off-the-shelf equipment, from GPS systems to altimeters, can provide designers of flying cars with sophisticated instruments comparable to those once found only in airliners
  • the increased reliability of sensors and automated control systems are improving, which might help alleviate human errors in steering flying cars
  • pilots only need 20 hours of flying experience to qualify for a Light-Sport license, which as The Economist points out, is fewer hours than many 16-year-olds spend learning to drive a car in the U.S., meaning there could be a growing market for these vehicles

In conclusion, one has to wonder whether one of the design hurdles in creating "flying cars" is their name, rather than the concept itself. There's a certain heaviness, even a datedness, to the idea of an automobile with aspirations to become airborne--a sense of being grounded that contradicts the vision of the Light-Sport aircraft category. The concept seems to beg for a description that's more about these vehicles being planes with added driving benefits.

Images: Kobel Feature Photos/Wikimedia Commons; Ian Maddox/Flickr

Related on SmartPlanet:

Flying cars coming soon to a garage near you

Bipod flying car works like a Chevy Volt

Does airport design contest foretell future of flight?

A new flight challenge: tiny airports for tiny planes

Share this

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure