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6 Apr, 2012 00:54

Flying car unveiled: Impressive, possibly impractical (VIDEO)

For decades science fiction writers, and their more practical cousins, engineers, have dreamt of building a flying car. Now that one is about to arrive on the market, the real question emerges: what are flying cars actually for?

US company Terrafugia has variously labeled its Transition model as a “roadable aircraft” and a “street-legal airplane”, perhaps in a quest to avoid the inherent fantastical connotations of “flying car.” Particularly when they are trying to make customers shell out $279,000 for each one.But functionally, the Transition is definitely a flying car.With its foldable wings, it can fit snugly in any road lane, and if given enough space for take-off it can fly two passengers at a cruising speed of 170 km/h.

A Transition owner could set out to drive to work, but upon seeing morning traffic, decide to fly there instead (providing there is an airstrip nearby). If he wants to return to a different airstrip than the one he set off from, he could do that without thinking about where he left his car, and just drive from there. No longer is bad weather a problem either – just drive until you find a piece of clear sky.As potential customers, the makers are giving real-life examples of a surveyor who may need to land at different points, one after another, or an estate agent who wants to fly between different properties, all while giving a breathtaking aerial tour for the customers.Also, people who just want to buy a flying car.“We’ve noticed in our order backlog there are actually a fair number of people who are not currently pilots who are putting deposits down to order a Transition,” says Terrafugia CEO Carl Dietrich.After presenting the working version at the New York International Auto Show this week, both the road and the aviation authorities have already approved the Transition. It’s completed its test flight, and the makers are hoping to start supplying customers early next year.

But, although the concept is undoubtedly cool and original, there may be some turbulence ahead.The Transition is a compromise – it is not an ideal car or a plane, but it costs more than a car AND a plane.As a car it looks unquestionably ungainly, travels slowly, and is fragile, although the makers say it fulfils basic road safety regulations. Any damage is likely to force a replacement of hugely expensive parts. In short, its car form is mostly just a towing mode for the plane – and users are unlikely to buy primarily for traveling on roads.As a plane, it is slower than conventional light sports airplanes with which it will compete, and also costs tens of thousands more than even the top two-seater models.Although a compromise was always inevitable with something that combines such distinct uses, the flying car doesn’t quite live up to childhood fantasies. It doesn’t have the smooth design of a Transformer robot, and it’s not as if owners can spontaneously decide to fly away from the middle of the traffic jam in one (perhaps, thankfully, considering the road safety implications). So, in practical terms, users who do not want to fly unpredictable routes could be better off spending the money on a fancy sports car and faster plane.Nonetheless, the company says the Transition is already a success, and more than a hundred orders have come in.

First off the ground? Not likely

Such a vehicle has always had a special place in people’s imagination. It was a vision of transportation in the 21st century, and a common feature of futuristic science fiction.Inventors have been trying to create flying cars since the 1930s.The early models were successfully ground tested, but did not enter production.The first flying car to actually fly was built by an airplane engineer Waldo Waterman. His Arrowbile first took to the air in March, 1937. It was a small plane with wings that could be detached in a few minutes.Several more vehicles, designed later, have also flown, but were not widely known to the general public.The most successful example, in that several were made – one is still flying – is the 1949 Taylor Aerocar. Although six examples were built, the Aerocar never entered production.Other attempted models either disintegrated during test flights or crashed, killing the pilots.