This Sunday during a speech at South by Southwest, the Slovakian activist-turned-inventor Juraj Vaculík announced that his company, AeroMobile, plans to put a functional flying car on the consumer market by 2017. According to Vaculík , the craft will liberate us from traffic jams, overcome unreliable and uncomfortable short-haul air travel, and negate the problems of poor infrastructure in rural or less developed areas within our lifetimes.
"We need to move traffic from a 2D to a 3D space," Engadget quoted Vaculík as saying.
Although AeroMobile has been developing flying car prototypes since 2010 , the company first attracted widespread attention in 2013 when they made their first public demonstrations of a less than stable first model craft. Then, in October 2014 , they demonstrated a more sophisticated model of their vehicle at Austria's Pioneers Festival. Although only a two-seater , the contraption is the size of a limousine, using fold-down wings and a secondary conventional plane steering system to take off on patches of road or grass . It can climb to almost 10,000 feet and fly over 400 miles per trip at nearly 100 miles an hour.
Last month the Rocketeer-style Martin Jetpack company went public with a promising IPO and the claim it will release the gravity blasters onto the mass market next year. Developments like these make it seem like the world is finally fulfilling the promise made to all of us by mid-20th century sci-fi and cartoons. Yet as nice as it would be to believe that the future is finally now, this isn't the fist time someone's shown the world a functional flying car prototype and promised a revolution within a few years.
The AeroMobile design is both badass and a sure sign of the leaps and bounds of modern science over the disastrous flying automobiles of yesteryear. But even Vaculík publicly acknowledges that maneuvering all of the regulatory concerns around mass personal flight, then going on to make a safe and usable vehicle affordable, is a huge challenge. AeroMobile remains optimistic , but all indications suggest its vision of a zippy future still faces many hurdles.
We've actually been trying to build flying cars (and jetpacks for that matter) since the early 20 th century. As far back as 1917 , less than a decade after the Model T came out, an American inventor was making brief airborne jumps in a carriage outfitted with a motor and aluminum wings. Even Henry Ford himself got behind the idea for a time, and in the 1950s at least two designs were certified as flightworthy by the US government. Yet due to the unwieldy nature of the designs and the inefficiency of existing technologies and construction materials, most companies lost interest in the idea after test pilots met their untimely deaths .
Yet thanks to the development of new technologies (like carbon fiber chases , which keep weight down without making flying machines brittle death traps), the design and construction of a functional flyer has grown increasingly common in the new millennium. That's exactly why we've seen so many promising prototypes over the past decade. As early as 2004, we started hearing about a flying car from the Dutch company PAL-V, which had produced a functional gyrocopter-like prototype by 2009. As of 2012 , our friends at The Creator's Project were already reporting on the company's plans to release a commercial version of their flying car by 2014.
There was also a good deal of excitement a couple of years back about the Massachusetts-based Terrafugia , which in 2012 publicly tested a prototype they'd started working on in 2006 . Their cool folding wings, great conviction, and promises of future innovations like pop-up rotary blades to take off vertically from stalled traffic managed to convince about 100 people to drop $10,000 a pop for down payments on their own flying cars for delivery within a few years.
For all the hype and promise, though, these projects typically go quiet for ages, then announce that there will be some serious (almost perpetual) delays. Terrafugia once had hopes to get its cars out there by 2009 , but then faced a slew of regulatory conformity issues and had to push back several times . Their relative silence, and their wishy-washy this year or next stance on a current roll out date, may be part of the reason why the hopeful are turning toward AeroMobile now.
To his credit, Vaculík openly acknowledges how hard it can be to design a functional craft that complies with governmental regulations. (Flying cars need to comply with both existing aviation and driving laws regarding construction, driver licensing, and safety precautions, which often run at odds with each other, like requiring non-flight-friendly materials in cars for crash protection.)
"The technology is there," The Washington Post quoted Vaculík as saying in 2014. "So the biggest challenge has always been meeting the standards of regulators. Nothing is in place to deal with something like a flying car."
"We need to somehow deal with 100 years of bureaucracy in the air," he added to CNet recently, "and 100 years of bureaucracy on the road."
However Vaculík remains optimistic about his company's chances at getting around these regulatory constraints. New guidelines, like those issued in 2008 in America , allow flying cars to be regulated like "Light Sport Aircraft " in the sky, a less onerous designation than a full-fledged plane. And governments have shown willingness in the past to bend automobile construction regulations, allowing lighter glass for instance , in flying car prototypes seeking certification. Vaculík believes that he has the cooperation of the European Union to help him navigate, comply with, work around, and develop technologies to fill the gaps in existing regulatory frameworks—and he's confident that he can overcome these barriers by 2017, although he's kept quiet as to the details.
"We are currently finalizing the certification process for airworthiness in Slovakia," AeroMobil Chief Communications Officer Štefan Vadocz told VICE in an email. "As our chief designer, Stefan Kelin, is very experienced in automotive design and also aviation engineering, the prototype fulfills most of the requirements for both categories. We [also] started to develop AeroMobil 3.0 [the current model] with the regulations in mind."
He also explained that AeroMobil is cooperating with a number of major industry leaders like the Slovak Automotive Industry Association and the UK society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders in order to understand and navigate the intense regulatory challenges ahead.
Even if Vaculík manages to make an officially certifiably safe flying car, though, he still has to consider the issue of accessibility and the size of the market for what he produces. As of now, his craft and others set for release in the next few years run for something between $250,000 and $300,000 a piece (before factoring in the precedent of the aviation industry , where projected prices often jump substantially once production beings). Beyond the prohibitive costs, in order to comply with regulatory regimens, drivers (of cars and jetpacks alike) will need a separate small aircraft license.
"It is too early to speak about market price at this stage," admits Vadocz. "Only after completion of final configuration we will be able to set the price span [sic]."
However, he still thinks the company can retail on par with luxury crafts and get the one-up on the Cessna and small airplane market thanks to a few little perks and benefits:
"You don't need to change vehicles during your journey from A to B [in a flying car]," he explains. "AeroMobil is very efficient real door-to-door vehicle for medium distance travel [sic]."
A couple inventors in California have just embraced the cost barriers of flying cars, mocking up designs last year for the GF7, a high-end luxury car with a proper jet engine (unlike the gas-fed models marketed by other flying car makers) capable of traveling 550 miles per hour in the air. At $3 to $5 million for the prototype (similar to the cost for a private jet), they're hoping to sell based on coolness and convenience to the already rich, bypassing the image of a popular model.
Vaculík still dreams of the people's flying car, though, apparently going the Tesla route of releasing a high-end " Flying Roadster " to build visibility, confidence, and funding, before developing something that everyone can use and afford. Ideally, to get around the piloting and persisting safety issues , AeroMobile hopes to produce a fully automated , four-seat craft with an almost 900-mile flight range. Yet given the lack of real automated driving regulations on the ground, much less in the free-form space of the air, and the youth of automated driving technologies themselves , Vadocz said they were studying the potential for such mass-accessible flying cars, but as of now he couldn't give an ETA for a such a car, its cost, or the shape of the potential market for it.
The hopeful believe that there will be enough interest in elite vehicles to create a market amongst governments and mass consumers, driving down the costs of and greasing the tracks toward development and sales. Advocates point out that the technology will be attractive to any looking for more reliable and efficient short-length flights tailored to individual schedules and needs and to governments hoping to reduce infrastructure costs , especially in less populated regions .
Yet it's not clear if these benefits outweigh the sheer costs and risks of mass individual flight.
"If something goes wrong on your car," Leslie Kendall, curator of the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, pointed out to the Los Angeles Times in 2012, "you can ease to the side of the road—not so much if something goes wrong in the air."
Vadocz claims that the new fail-safes, like parachute rescue systems, will ensure that even failing cars stay safe, and notes that automation technology is getting better and safer all the time. But that sill might not be enough to assure everyone of the car's human-error-proof safety.
Maybe the cost of materials will go down and demand will rise, as the flying car proponents hope. Maybe regulations will eventually come together in favor of safe and well-policed yet practical mass individual flight. Or maybe we'll find ways to ensure the safety of automation technologies and the further safety of drivers and passengers when those controls fail. But that's the thing: for now flying cars are almost just barely a possibility for one percenters. And the path between that and the modern equivalent of George Jetson getting his hands on one is studded with an almost infinite number of maybes and unforeseens that leave this tech and Vaculík's dreams exciting as a sign of the development of science, yet high questionable in practical terms.
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