The world needs flying cars

  • Business
  • Saturday, 14 Jul 2012

Increasing traffic congestion has made travelling on the roads a commuting nightmare.

WITH the world's population virtually exploding on a yearly basis, the increasing traffic congestion has made travelling on the roads a commuting nightmare.

While countries all over the world are beefing up their public transport systems and passing all sorts of legislation to make driving less of a hassle, one can't deny the fact that all of this is unlikely to reduce the demand for cars or traffic jams!

After all, cars these days are more of a necessity. This is compounded by the fact that having more than one car per household is gaining traction.

According to a 2010 survey conducted by the US Department of Energy, since 1969, the number of vehicles per household had increased by 66% to an average of 1.92, while the number of vehicles per licensed driver has increased by 47% to an average of 1.03 during the same period.

The number of cars on the road is just going to keep on increasing. According to reports, the number of vehicles on the world's roads surpassed one billion units in 2010.

According to the International Transport Forum's forecast, the global vehicle fleet could reach 2.5 billion by 2050. That's more than double the number of cars on the road currently. And you thought traffic jams were bad now?

Clearly, we need to get those cars off the road literally!

Flying cars

The notion of flying cars has been popularly depicted in Hollywood films and cartoons with futuristic settings, such as the Back to the Future trilogy and The Jetsons.

In the second instalment of the Back to the Future trilogy, the world still had road-driving cars, but the public had the option of having hover conversions done to their vehicles, hence giving them the ability to “fly.”

If this were to become a reality someday, with the traffic being split between road-users and air-users, for instance, our traffic jam woes could be a thing of the past.

In fact, all of the roads may actually become redundant eventually, for the sky's the limit if it needs to support the billions of vehicles expected to roam the earth in the future.

If this automotive utopia sounds absurd, don't laugh too loudly just yet, for the fantasy of being able to drive (or pilot, rather) an actual flying car might actually be closer than you think!

US-based corporation Terrafugia Inc is already developing a road-worthy aircraft, called the “Transition,” that it hopes to launch by sometime this year.

According to reports, the Transition has foldable wings (that retract in 30 seconds) which then allow it to operate as a street-legal road vehicle.

Based on reports, the vehicle can carry two people plus luggage and operates on a single tank of regular unleaded fuel.

Potential owners will however be required to obtain a sport pilot certificate, which can be acquired after some 20 hours of observed flying time.

For the environmentally conscious, US-based aerospace company Scaled Composites, the company behind Virgin Galactic's spacecraft and launch vehicles, is currently developing a hybrid flying car.

Dubbed the “Model 367 BiPod,” this two-seater fibreglass and carbon fiber vehicle features two 450cc internal combustion engines and is designed to be driven like a car from the left cockpit and flown like a plane on the right.

According to reports, the vehicle can travel 760 miles at 100mph in aircraft mode; while as a car, is able to push out about 820 miles on a tank of fuel and 35 miles in electric mode.

Noteworthy also is that German automotive company Volkswagen AG seems equally keen to jump on the flying car bandwagon someday.

At the 2012 Beijing Motor Show, the automotive giant unveiled its concept VW Hover Car, one of three concepts to come out of its “People's Car Project” that it launched in China last year.

While only a computer-generated imagery (CGI) version of the Hover Car was unveiled, VW states that the concept vehicle, which is shaped like a dime, will float about a foot off the ground and seats two people.

And because it hovers (and is devoid of friction when mobile), the Hover Car will be deemed to be quite fuel efficient.

According to Volkswagen, the Hover Car in reality would need electromagnetic strips embedded in the road to function.

The electromagnetism would repel the vehicle from the ground, giving it hovering capabilities.

Costs and other issues

Flying cars are good, but affordable flying cars are even better and what the world truly needs.

While it's great to know that car companies around the world are already taking the initiative to produce flying cars, unfortunately, much like any new product or technology that comes into the market, it is inevitable that these amazing machines will probably blow a hole in the average consumer's wallet.

Should any of these vehicles end up going into production, the market for these cars will initially be very small, for the lack of economies of scale means only a handful of people will ever be able to live out their fantasies of experiencing a flying car.

Terrafugia's Transition, for instance, is expected to cost some US$279,000 (RM892,800), and can already be reserved for a “modest” US$10,000, according to reports.

Also, even if you have the money, the Transition is currently the only vehicle to be cleared for use by the public (by the US National Highway Safety Administration), while no plans are in the pipeline to manufacture the BiPod commercially.

Volkswagen's Hover Car, meanwhile, only works in the CGI world and may never even get produced (at least for now).

But even if the cost (of an eventually mass-produced flying car) does become affordable, powering them will not be, according to experts.

In an interview with US-based PC Magazine earlier this year, futurist, theoretical physicist, and best-selling author Dr. Michio Kaku argued that operating a flying car would be “extremely expensive.”

“It would consume vast amounts of fuel, just to stay in one spot, and would be beyond the means of any middle class family. The fundamental problem is cost, and has been for decades,” he says.

An alternative, cheaper method to keep the car in the air, Kaku says, is for the vehicle to use “superconducting supermagnets” (something like how VW Hover Car would operate in reality).

“One day, if we have room temperature superconductors, then our cars would float on a cushion of magnetism. Our roads would be made of this superconductor; to get our cars going, all we have to do is blow on them, and they start to move.

“It would solve the energy crisis, since much of our oil goes into overcoming the friction of the road. Without friction, our gas consumption would drop drastically, almost to zero. Hence, it would solve the energy crisis and the global warming problem at the same time,” he says.

Kaku goes on to point out that while we already have magnetic trains, the costs, he adds, “are enormous.”

“But once room temperature superconductors are created, it would cost nothing to create supermagnets. It means that the hover boards seen in Back to the Future might also become a reality as well,” says Kaku.

Another issue of concern is one of safety. With the world already experiencing so many road accidents from commuters driving cars that are firmly rooted to the ground, what more for when we start travelling by air?

With the risk of driving a flying car far higher than a road-driven one, insurance premiums could become ridiculously expensive, according to an article by US-based business news website, MSN Money.

Citing experts, the portal reports that annual premiums for Terrafugia's Transition could run as high as US$60,000 (RM192,000), which is more than 76 times the average US$785 household auto insurance policy in the United States.

“Premiums would also reflect the higher possible expense of any air or road accident. Injuries and property damage from crash-landing a plane, for example, are likely to be more grievous than those incurred when driving, which affects liability coverage,” said the online report.

Experts quoted in the report also argued that even minor accidents could be expensive to fix, as few mechanics could handle such repairs, adding that the Federal Aviation Administration would also need to re-certify the vehicle as flight-worthy.

“Flying-car buyers could also see higher premiums if their records as a pilot or a driver aren't spotless.”

Fact or fiction?

Whether or not the prospects of flying cars do take off or not eventually is left to be seen. It should be noted however that companies around the world are already making headways in this area.

Realistically, a world populated by flying car-users is unlikely to happen any time soon, but maybe in the long term.

But if life imitates art, as many today believe, then we're already well on our way.

Here, a statement made by Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, soon after he directed a movie about rampaging dinosaurs, probably sums it up best: “This isn't science fiction; it's science eventuality.”

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