Opinion: Fantasy Becoming Reality - Flying Cars

Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a five part series about the technologies of yesterday's science fiction becoming the reality of tomorrow.

Inventive creations in fiction have captivated our imagination for decades; flying cars in The Jetsons, invisibility cloaks in Harry Potter, teleportation in Star Trek, time travel in Back to the Future, and even immortality in Lost. Common sense tells us to accept these things as purely conceptions of fantasy; imaginative ideas of brilliant writers; an afterthought in the realm of reality. Yet, as technology continues to grow exponentially, we may one day, perhaps in our lifetime, experience the realization of certain ideas previously reserved for the movie theater. In this five part series, we’ll explore the possibility of fantasy becoming reality.

Part I: Flying Cars

Could we soon joke about the fact that we used to sit in traffic jams pounding our fists on the steering wheel? Of the aforementioned creations of fantasy, commercially available flying cars may be the closest to becoming a reality.

Before diving into the details, we need to make a distinction between roadable aircraft and flying cars. Roadable aircraft are vehicles that combine the flying capabilities of an aircraft with the option of being driven on the ground. These types of vehicles come complete with foldable wings and generally take off like an airplane, thus requiring a runway. Developers have been designing and successfully testing such vehicles since the mid 1900s. Terrafugia, a small company based in Massachusetts, created a roadable, light-sport aircraft in 2006 called the “Transition”, which completed its first flight in March of 2012 and can currently be reserved for delivery in 2015.

The problem with roadable aircrafts as we know them is the need for extra accommodations, i.e. a runway, for flight. A flying car, on the other hand, needs no specially prepared operating spaces. They can take off and land vertically akin to the flying cars from The Jetsons. These are the vehicles we think of when we imagine flying from our driveways to work without a limit on their use in urban, or space-restricted areas.

Though such vehicles have not yet demonstrated these capabilities, progress is being made. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Defense, recently implemented a five-year program called “DARPA TX”, which seeks to develop a four-seat, flyable/roadable vehicle with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities for use by the U.S. Military.  Organized as a competition, DARPA would award funding through three phases to external companies with the best designs. Late in 2013, Lockheed Martin and the AAI Corporation were selected to move to the final phase of the project in which a prototype will be manufactured by 2015.

More significant to the everyday consumer is Terrafugia’s development of the TF-X. The proposed design is impressive. Unlike the transition, the TF-X can take off and land vertically in a driveway. Once in the air, the TF-X has a maximum speed of 200 MPH. The TF-X will function mostly autonomously, meaning the driver can essentially tell the vehicle where he or she wants to go and then relax as it flies and lands automatically (with manual overrides of course).

On the road, the TF-X operates as a plug-in hybrid. Still, the TF-X remains in the early stages of development, though Terrafugia co-founder Carl Dietrich estimates that it will be airborne in eight to twelve years. As is usually the case with emerging technologies, the cost of producing the TF-X, and thus the price to consumers, will initially be high. Yet, as demand increases, the cost of production will continue to decrease to the point where the TF-X could indeed be the “flying car for everybody.”

Even with the emerging market for roadable aircrafts and flying cars, an obvious problem exists: how will we create a safe and efficient infrastructure to accommodate the presence of these vehicles? One possible solution is the Next Generation Air Transportation System; a new National Airspace System due for implementation in stages over the next eleven years. This system will transform America’s air traffic control system from an ancient ground based system, to a satellite-based, GPS utilizing system. Such a system would seemingly be necessary for the amount of air traffic that would be present should flying cars become a fixture in society.

Imagine turning a 60-minute commute into a 10-minute one? Los Angeles residents would certainly welcome the change. Within the next two decades, this could be our reality.

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