Before Flying Car Can Take Off, There’s a Checklist

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flying-car1The promise of an airplane parked in every driveway, for decades a fantasy of suburban commuters and a staple of men’s magazines, resurfaced this month in Manhattan. On display at the New York auto show was the Terrafugia Transition, an airplane with folding wings and a drive system that enabled it to be used on the road.

The prototype that drew all the attention with regular wing-stowing demonstrations was no mock-up assembled for a cover shoot; just a week earlier this drivable airplane had completed the first of 75 test flights it will make to verify its airworthiness for the Federal Aviation Administration. Amplifying the buzz was the news that a potential competitor from the Netherlands, the Personal Air and Land Vehicle, or PAL-V, had in recent days made a proof-of-concept flight.

Executives from both companies promise that their Jetson-like creations will be fully certified and ready to roll into the garages of customers – within a year for the $279,000 Terrafugia. PAL-V estimates a price of $300,000.

But there can be many delays along the road from concept to certification. For instance, government officials and the designers have had to determine which regulations – aircraft or automotive – take precedence when the vehicle in question is both.

In the United States, development of the flying car was given some breathing room eight years ago when the F.A.A. created a new classification, the light-sport category, to encourage the design of small, easy-to-fly aircraft. To meet the light-sport definition, the aircraft must have a single engine and an unpressurized cabin, have one or two seats and weigh no more than 1,320 pounds; maximum air speed is limited to 138 miles per hour.

Cliff Allen, vice president for sales at Terrafugia, which is based in Woburn, Mass., said that the designers of the Transition asked federal regulators in 2008 if they would consider a road-ready vehicle under the light sport-aircraft rules. “Before they made the investment of time and effort they wanted to know that F.A.A. would be supportive,” Mr. Allen said.

The response was positive, but there were few precedents for flying cars. In 1956, the Civil Aeronautics Administration approved the Taylor Aerocar. Six were built before Moulton Taylor’s company failed, according to the F.A.A.

In 2010, the $94,000 Maverick, a rudimentary buggy that takes to the air under a powered parachute, earned certification as a light-sport aircraft. Troy Townsend, design manager and chief test pilot for the company, based in Dunnellon, Fla., said he spent spent nearly all of his time over the course of three years working through the bureaucratic snags.

“There was a lot of red tape,” Mr. Townsend said. “The certification process went all the way to Oklahoma and Washington, D.C.”

To avoid having to meet federal safety standards, the Maverick is not sold as a road vehicle, but as a kit car. The buyer licenses it according to the prevailing state requirements.

At Terrafugia, engineers decided to classify the car side of the Transition as a multipurpose vehicle. Compliance with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash standards will be done by submitting the results of computer-based simulations showing how the seat belts, crumple zones and crash structure performed.

Terrafugia sought waivers from N.H.T.S.A. on two requirements. It obtained permission to use motorcycle tires and wheels, rather than truck-rated parts, to save weight, and it received approval to use polycarbonate plastics for the windows, rather than automotive glass, which could be shattered by a bird strike.

“The F.A.A. coordinated with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration for the Terrafugia to determine the clear responsibility between the requirements for road operations and air operations,” the F.A.A. said.

Even though the Transition “meets the regulatory definition of a motor vehicle,” its 4-cylinder Rotax engine is not required to comply with federal emissions or fuel-economy standards. The Environmental Protection Agency decided to treat flying cars as aircraft, though it may reconsider if they “become commonplace.”

Test pilots must successfully fly the Transition to demonstrate its durability in dives and spins and its ability to recover from unexpected events in flight. Then regulators will determine if it can be easily handled by pilots with light-sport licenses, which can be obtained with as little as 20 hours of instruction.

Obtaining road certification for the Dutch PAL-V ought to be straightforward. The on-road duties of the 1,500-pound, two-seat gyrocopter are based on a three-wheel chassis that leans into turns, cornering like a motorcycle.

With three wheels, it is classified as a motorcycle by N.H.T.S.A “and subject to federal motor vehicle safety standards that are applicable to motorcycles,” according to the agency. The same is true in Europe, said Robert Dingemanse, PAL-V’s co-founder and chief executive.

While meeting motorcycle safety rules is less demanding, the main benefit of using the so-called Carver tilt technology was that it accommodated the PAL-V’s high center of gravity.

For a gyrocopter – the PAL-V gets its lift from an overhead rotor and forward thrust from a propeller mounted at the rear of the cabin – the high center of gravity was a seemingly insurmountable problem, at least until the tilting Carver design came along. In the PAL-V, the center of gravity is around the height of the seated driver’s shoulders, which would make the plane prone to tumbling over in turns if it did not tilt.

“It stays stable in all situations,” Mr. Dingemanse said. “You can run it like a sports car.”

Having achieved road certification in Europe, the next challenge is airworthiness. Mr. Dingemanse said the team he had hired to help get aviation approval was optimistic after the proof-of-concept flight.

The PAL-V’s approval by the European Aviation Safety Agency would not automatically qualify it in the United States. But, Mr. Dingemanse says, once European authorities certify the airplane, other nations should not present significant challenges. PAL-V executives predict that they will start producing flying cars in Europe in 2014.

Whether or not these sell-by dates prove realistic, the Terrafugia, PAL-V and Maverick are prodding a new line of thinking that could at last unleash flying cars from the realm of science fiction.

{NY Times/ Newscenter}


  1. These flying cars have a space in countries and situations where roads are damaged (for example after a war or earthquake), especially if unpredictably (think satellites out of order or limited bandwidth). Elsewhere, it makes no sense, as a small aircraft can land where needed and there rent a car.
    I agree research should continue and prototypes should keep being produced.

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