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Star Wars: how close are we to flying cars?

The highly anticipated return of Star Wars this month will inevitably be accompanied by a widespread outbreak of nostalgia for the film’s many sci-fi innovations. 

The Star Wars odyssey may take place in a galaxy far, far away but the fascination with light sabres, X-Wings and Landspeeders has been a distinctly earthbound pop cultural phenomenon. The fact that Star Wars was the first blockbuster to truly embrace action figure merchandise – meaning kids across the globe could own miniaturised replicas of this wondrous technology – has imbued many of the film’s mythical technology with a strange familiarity. 

Of course, for the most part, Star Wars tech must remain the stuff of fantasy – no one expects to be nipping to the next galaxy in their very own Millennium Falcon any time soon. But what about the flying cars? Star Wars is not alone in offering up a seductive vision of air-bound vehicles that bear a striking resemblance to the cars we drive to work every day – except for the appealing bonus of being able to take to the skies. From the Jetsons’ hovercar to Bruce Willis’ flying taxi in The Fifth Element, our screens have rarely been short of flying cars. Sadly, real life has yet to deliver on this appealing cinematic promise.

For many this is something of a disappointment. Flying cars don’t seem so outlandish – surely we should all be whizzing around in Blade Runner-esque ‘spinners’ by now?  

 

Why haven’t flying cars taken off yet?

There’s been no shortage of attempts to liberate our cars from the overcrowded roads over the years. Ever since the dawn of aviation, the notion of creating everyday car-plane hybrids has been pursued by plenty of would be pioneers. The Curtiss Autoplane, which could be seen at the Pan-American Aeronautic Exposition of 1917, is widely regarded as the first attempt to create a roadworthy aircraft. Sadly the craft was never really able to achieve full flight. There’s been no shortage of similarly ill-fated flying car projects in the 98 years since. 

These days the main obstacle flying car projects face isn’t necessarily technological. While the potential to produce reasonably workable flying vehicles is not in doubt (as we shall see) the viability of making them a legislative reality is undoubtedly more remote. 

Think for a moment about the practical feasibility of everyone hurtling around in air-bound vehicles and the inevitability of serious safety concerns becomes obvious. Keeping our roads as safe as possible is a big enough challenge; extending this safety remit to encompass the skies – where the consequences of driver error would be significantly more perilous – looks like a terrifying prospect. 

Piloting a plane comes with considerable responsibility and a wholly convincing set of safety measures would have to be on the table before any government would entertain the notion of opening the skies for the sort of casual everyday travel the introduction of flying cars would seem to invite. 

 

You wait for one flying car… 

For all such reservations there are signs that the flying car (like the long mooted driverless car) could be closer to becoming an everyday reality than ever before. Right now two companies have flying cars in development and claim to be targeting imminent release. The AeroMobil 3.0 has been developed by Aeromobil, a Slovakian company, who claim that it "transforms in seconds from an automobile to an airplane", while Terrafugia, an American company which has been busy developing its Transition light sport flying car since 2006, is now touting the TF-X, a Delorian lookalike that will apparently be capable of vertical take off.   

In terms of practical usability the Aeromobil 3.0 looks like the most immediately viable vehicle. It’s relatively small (the same size as a five door Bentley), meaning it can fit in your garage and on most parking spots, runs on regular petrol and only requires 200 meters to take off. One note of caution however, back in May the Aeromobil 3.0 crashed on a test flight in Slovakia. Happily its pilot, inventor Stefan Klein, safely ejected but the incident won’t inspire confidence that this latest attempt to deliver a credible flying car will be the one to finally fulfil a century-long promise.  

 

Sources:

http://www.fastcompany.com/3032921/innovation-agents/flying-cars-predicted-in-two-years-what-then

http://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/automotive/ct-autos-terrafugia-flying-car-20150731-story.html

http://www.aeromobil.com/

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