Why flying cars haven’t taken off— yet

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A recent General Motors ad campaign is a real letdown. Cars of all makes and models take to the sky. At last, a major automaker has decided to invest in the ultimate off-road experience.

Alas, the commercials are only an attempt to convince us that GM cars run great—on the ground.


Major automakers are, unfortunately, too road-bound in their thinking to invest in flying cars, so you won't see any at the North American International Auto Show that starts Saturday in Detroit. That leaves smaller firms struggling to bring air travel to your two-car garage.


'Road-able aircraft'


The best bet for flying cars looks to be Terrafugia Inc.'s Transition. It looks a lot like a small Cessna, except it's closer to the ground and has wings that fold up for driving and unfold for flying. By late 2009 (fingers crossed), a limited number of people should be able to buy it for about $150,000.


Transition is aptly named because it's only technically a flying car. The company calls it a “road-able aircraft.” To take off, you'll need to drive it to an airport, because it needs a runway to launch. Drivers will need a pilot's license to do that.


The Federal Aviation Administration requires a minimum of 40 hours of instructional flying time for a private pilot's license. Lessons take several months and cost thousands of dollars. Terrafugia is pushing to have the vehicle grouped into the light sport aircraft FAA classification, which requires less training, but also carries more restrictions on pilot and the aircraft.


Beyond the Transition, flying cars have to overcome three problems to really take off.


The first problem is technical. On the road, drivers suffer fender benders and breakdowns, but these rarely result in death. In the sky, mechanical problems can be lethal. To become popular with non-pilots, flying cars will need several redundant safety features that guard against systems glitches and faulty judgment.


The second is practical. The Transition requires a runway because it needs a lot of room to take off. If flying cars are to become popular, then they'll have to be unmoored from airports. Aeromobiles will have to have vertical take-off and landing capabilities.


FAA rules an obstacle


Which brings us to our third problem: regulation. One prototype vehicle that might be capable of vertical takeoff and landing is Moller International's Skycar M400, but it remains grounded due to testing and red tape. Even if it gets off the ground in three years—as the company projects—it will be pricey, at $500,000 a pop. And licensing will remain a long and costly process.


Regulation will become increasingly important over time. Initial flying car prices are set high enough that only well-off, highly motivated customers will buy them, but that will change. As with any technology, early adopters pay a novelty premium and help knock the bugs out, thus allowing later, cheaper mass production.


For that to happen, the FAA will need to relax its grasp over commercial aviation and let millions of relatively novice pilots-drivers head skyward. Restrictive licensing rules, as well as those requiring FAA approval for all test flights, are a huge disincentive for major auto manufacturers to get involved in the flying car business.


The bottom line is that the dream of the flying car is not as distant as it once was. The Transition is not quite what we think an aeromobile should be (think of The Jetsons, though we'd take Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at this point), but then it doesn't pretend to be, and it's a pretty good start.


It's good to know that several small, enterprising firms are investing in a technology that will eventually allow the little guy to soar.