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Posted at 06:35 PM ET, 04/03/2012

The flying car: Are we there yet?

You’re sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the radio is on the fritz and it’s a sweltering 100 degrees outside. As you mumble a list of ear-blistering obscenities to yourself, you imagine how wonderful it would be if your car could just lift off and fly away.

Ah, yes, the flying car.

We’ve all wanted one, and it appears two companies have come one step closer to grasping one of engineering’s many Holy Grails.

The two companies are Netherlands-based PAL-V and Massachusetts-based Terrafugia. On Sunday, PAL-V released a video on YouTube showing what the company says is the successful maiden flight of its “flying car,” the PAL-V One.

“It’s the sort of milestone we have been looking forward to for years,” said PAL-V’s co-founder and CEO Robert Dingemanse during a phone call Tuesday. “We proved to the world it can be done. It can be done within the existing set of rules.”

Meanwhile, on Monday, Terrafugia announced that its prototype, the Transition, had completed its first flight and would be presented at the New York International Auto Show later this week. The company aims to sell the car next year, having originally set a target date of 2011. One hundred people have already placed a down payment of $10,000 on the car, which costs $279,000 — the price of a home (or two) in some parts of the United States

While others have been innovating in the flying-car arena, Terrafugia and PAL-V are “the two that have led the pack,” says Mark Levine, president and co-founder of the International Flying Car Association. The association has existed informally for more than two years, according to Levine, but formally registered to become a nonprofit this month as news about flying cars has attracted more attention — going from what Levine calls “crazy or hokey” designs that “didn’t make commercial sense” to commercially viable flying cars that will be sold in the market.

“I personally have an order in for each of them,” said Levine of the PAL-V and the Terrafugia. “They’re totally different vehicles for totally different markets.”

The PAL-V One

The PAL-V One may look like a helicopter, but it’s not. It’s a gyrocopter. It achieves lift by an auto-rotated rotor and moves forward thanks to a push propeller at the rear. It also runs on the same gasoline as a regular automobile.

As for the price, Dingemanse says the company has not yet determined a price point, although he says it would probably start around $300,000, with pre-orders starting at the beginning of next year and the first orders likely delivered to Europe and then later to the United States. Asked whether the price point could get any lower, Dingemanse said that, in perhaps 10 or 15 years the price of a flying car could drop to about $40,000.

“Our next step is bringing commercial product into the market that is envisioned for delivery in 2014. Then we will start making small quantities compared to the big automobile companies.”

As for whether China was on the company’s radar, Dingemanse said, “It’s more the other way around. We are on the radar of China.”

But China will have to wait for PAL-V. Dingemanse says he firmly believes in doing first production and marketing near his engineers, who are based in Europe, before expanding to more-distant markets. “China will, in the near future, become one of the countries that will be interesting for us.”

Dingemanse has also visited India, another country plagued by traffic congestion, and says he will be returning there soon.

The Transition

While the PAL-V approaches its flying-car technology primarily from the perspective of bringing drivers into the air, Terrafugia’s Transition is geared more toward giving pilots more options on the ground. “You do have to be at least a sport pilot to operate this aircraft,” said Terrafugia CEO/CTO Carl Dietrich during a phone call Tuesday.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), however, released a statement Tuesday evening saying:

“The manufacturer has not yet applied for an FAA airworthiness certificate, so the FAA has not yet determined what level of pilot certificate and training would be required to operate the Terrafugia Transition as an aircraft.”

So, it appears there are some details that have yet to be worked out regarding what it will take to be considered a qualified pilot.

The company, which was started in 2004, flew a proof-of-concept aircraft back in 2009 and is now flying a production prototype, which is going through its final tests this year, according to Dietrich. In June 2011, the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration granted Terrafugia’s petition for a temporary exemption from certain Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard provisions, including tire and rim requirements and “occupant crash protection.”

That’s not to say the company isn’t concerned about safety.

“We are bringing automotive safety technology to general aviation,” said Dietrich. “We’ve got things like safety cage, crumple zones. . . . We see that as a critical thing in order to lower the barriers to entry.

“If we want to fundamentally expand the market, which we do, we need to go out there and start addressing these concerns,” he continued.

The Transition, which runs on super unleaded automotive gasoline, also comes with a built-in parachute — a safety mechanism to further ensure gradual descent in the event of an emergency. The vehicle also provides what Dietrich calls a “psychological safety net,” allowing pilots to satisfy their desire for mission completion by landing and driving to their destination in inclement weather.

But Dietrich acknowledges that the technology is far from what people imagine when they are sitting in traffic.

“I think everybody has had that frustration and shares that dream a little bit — any sort of vehicle that you would build that would lift out of traffic,” he said.

But the need to blow enough air down to generate thrust creates a number of problems on conventional roads. Just think of the damage you could incur from surrounding debris alone if your car, like a hovercraft or helicopter, shot directly into the air. That’s to say nothing of power lines and traffic lights.

According to Dietrich, the number of under-used small and medium-sized airports are enough to give aspiring Transition pilots an opportunity to take off and land close to just about any destination. “Those are the airports that we’re trying to encourage people to make better use of with the Transition,” said Dietrich.

And then there’s the issue of the nation’s aging commercial air fleet.

“I think we’re coming to market at the right time,” Dietrich said.

“I think that there is some real value that general aviation has and that this sort of transportation has for that regional trip,” he continued. “It’s not the right thing for every trip, but for that intermediate travel range . . . general aviation is ideally suited.”

Perhaps, but even as pilots are taking off from a regional airport and driving their Transitions and PAL-V Ones into their garages, I’ll continue to dream of George Jetson, his flying car and his home in the sky.

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By  |  06:35 PM ET, 04/03/2012

Categories:  Business, Research, Technology, Video, #Quirky

 
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