The race to deliver the world’s first flying car is officially on. Here in Vienna, a little-known Slovakian start-up has taken the wraps off of what they’ve touted as the “world’s most advanced flying car.”
Unveiled Wednesday at the Pioneers Festival, an annual conference on innovation held at Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, the fully-operable prototype is about the size of a minivan. It’s certainly matured vastly from the wobbly pre-prototype version the company presented exactly a year ago. Powered by a 100-horsepower, four-cylinder Rotax engine, the Aeromobil 3.0 as a top flight speed of 100 mph and a range of up to 500 miles. Altitude is limited to 9,800 feet as going much higher would require pressurized cabins.
Inside the cockpit is a dual-navigation system that allows the driver to switch from steering wheel to piloting controls without a hitch. With the exterior, the fabric skin frame has scuttled in for favor of lightweight carbon fiber and the retractable carbon-fiber wings have been repositioned at a slight 3 degree incline to provide better stability. Even the headlights and LED backlights have the feel of road-readiness.
Up until a year ago, the Transition, a well-funded concept from upstart Massachusetts firm Terrafugia was billed as the latest and greatest hope for a practical land and air vehicle. In development since 2006, early prototypes boasted a top driving speed of 70 mph and compact folding wings that allowed it to fit neatly inside a small garage. After a series of impressive test flights in 2012 and a litany of alterations to comply with regulations put forth by the FAA and highway authorities, the project has been beset with design problems. The company has since pushed the release date to 2015 at the earliest.
So what’s to prevent the AeroMobil, which harbors the same sky-high hopes, from falling into regulatory and development purgatory? While Juraj Vaculík, co-founder and chief executive, is reluctant to offer up any assurance, he counts several reasons for optimism. First and foremost, he claims, the vehicle is safe to operate and is designed so that anyone with a pilot’s license can fly one, much like a sandpiper. Meanwhile, on the road, it drives like a normal car.
Additionally, it’s fortified with a host of modern-day enhancements such as GPS, autopilot and an emergency parachute system.
“The technology is there, so the biggest challenge has always been meeting the standards of regulators,” Vaculík explains. “Nothing is in place to deal with something like a flying car, but we are feeling pretty good about the possibilities because the Slovakian government has been supportive of what we’re doing and are willing to work with us to make it happen.”
Another major obstacle is the absence of a real market demand, particularly the kind that would enable companies to scale up production and position such vehicles as a viably affordable alternative to automobiles, trains and commercial airlines. Price could also be an issue. The team tells me the AeroMobil will be priced in the range of a supercar, so expect it to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“When you can fly, it’s more time efficient than cars or waiting at the airport for a short flight. You also consume less fuel. And compared to small airplanes, you don’t have to rent a hanger and other maintenance costs,” says Stefan Vadocz, AeroMobil’s head of public relations. “When people start to realize how much they are bound to existing infrastructure, they’ll want more options.”
The AeroMobil has been pre-certified by Solvakia’s Civil Aviation Authority and has begun testing in real flight conditions. And like the Transition, the designers will look into making the necessary modifications to satisfy the criteria for registration as a light-sport aircraft as well as a road legal vehicle. Though they’ve stated that they’re aiming to push out a product as soon as possible, there’s currently no timeframe.
“What people need to know is that certification can take years and tests can take a lot of time,” Vadocz says. “We are ready to start and if we have to change the headlights because of the angle how they beam, we’ll do what we need to. But I think what we have now is pretty close.”