Driving the Skies

The dream of flying cars has long been symbolic of a bright and gleaming future. Could two entrepreneurs finally make it a reality? 

Virtually as soon as the car and the airplane were invented, people began dreaming of combining them. In popular culture, personal flying vehicles have long been central to visions of the future, be they bright or dystopian, from The Jetsons to Blade Runner to The Fifth Element. “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” says Doc Brown in 1987’s Back to the Future II, before setting his time machine—a flying Delorean—to 2015. 

Clearly, the real world is behind schedule, but two entrepreneurs are currently chasing this futuristic holy grail. Juraj Vaculík is convinced that the sleek flying car designed by his company, AeroMobil, in Bratislava, Slovakia, will revolutionize personal transportation. Across the ocean, in Woburn, Massachusetts, Carl Dietrich is equally certain that the streamlined flying car his company, Terrafugia, has built will change travel as we know it.

Both models are powered in the air by a propeller at the rear and have wings that fold up at the push of a button. Both companies have conducted successful test drives and flights of their prototypes, and both have announced plans to bring their vehicles to market in 2017. The first customers are expected to be wealthy aviation enthusiasts, but both CEOs are convinced that when the general public sees how useful, safe, and downright beautiful these flying cars are, orders will begin to flow in.

In 1940 Henry Ford predicted that “a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.” Forgive us if we’re still smiling. As PayPal cofounder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel quipped in 2011, “We wanted flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters.” Short of delivering futuristic fantasies, our high-tech age has brought us screens on our telephones, with which we can tweet while we are stuck in traffic on boring earthbound roads. 

If either AeroMobil or Terrafugia does make the 2017 rollout date, it will mark a century since New York aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss built a flying car, the Curtiss Autoplane, in 1917. In the past hundred years, roadworthy aircraft have been designed in many different shapes and sizes, but as business ventures they’ve all had one thing in common: They failed. That discouraging record does not daunt the earnest 48-year-old Vaculík, who believes the AeroMobil, with its 400-mile flying range and top speed of 125 miles per hour, will find customers ready to pay several hundred thousand dollars for it. 

Vaculík, an advertising executive who was a student leader during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, says he often sat with his friend tefan Klein on the banks of the Danube in communist Czechoslovakia and looked across the river to democratic Austria. They imagined a flying car that could carry them over the river to freedom. Klein went on to lead automotive-design research projects for companies such as Audi and BMW after democracy took root, but he never forgot the vision of a flying car. He built the first prototype in his garage, and in 2010 the two friends formed AeroMobil.

Sitting in the conference room of his advertising agency, high above Bratislava’s historic center, Vaculík holds up his phone. “Twenty years ago, cell phones were big black boxes with spotty coverage—and expensive,” he says. “Now we’re unable to think how we communicated without them. Flying cars will go from a very niche market to a large commercial sector when people realize how this will change the quality of their lives.”

His optimism is undimmed even though two weeks before I speak with him, in May, an AeroMobil prototype suffered what he called an “incident” during a test flight piloted by Klein. The vehicle’s emergency parachute deployed correctly and Klein walked away unscathed, but the AeroMobil was partially damaged.

The malfunction has been investigated, its causes were addressed, and a new prototype is in development, Vaculík assures me. A European firm recently made a $2.8 million investment in AeroMobil, the first since the company began. Until then, Vaculík was paying all the bills.

In Woburn, Massachusetts, Dietrich says he did not look for funding from venture capitalists seeking short-term profits, but rather from investors who would take a longer view. “The grand vision for Terrafugia is to help humanity get off the ground,” he says. “This is a huge change that will take a generation or more. But that’s what happened with the change from horse and buggy to cars.”

Dietrich is a young-looking 38, sandy-haired, with a doctorate in aeronautics from MIT. He and the Terrafugia team are currently working on a flying car called the Transition. It turns in a respectable 35 miles per gallon on the road, and its range in the air is about 400 miles. The Transition, which runs on premium unleaded gas, can take off from virtually any airport and requires an entry-level pilot’s certificate to operate. Potential buyers can reserve one by putting down $10,000 toward its production. (The estimated sales price is $279,000.) So far, says Dietrich, about 100 people have done so. 

Skies won’t exactly be clogged with flying cars by 2017, even if AeroMobil and Terrafugia make their deadlines. Roadable aircraft will likely remain a small subsector of recreational aviation for the next few years, but Dietrich believes that won’t be the case forever. Advances in autonomous piloting are a game changer, according to Dietrich. “The technology is expanding rapidly,” he says. “It’s there to be integrated into a platform like this, and you would not need anything more than an operating license.” The day is coming when both cars and planes will be controlled almost entirely by computer. When that happens, the future will have arrived—by the time we get our flying cars, we might not even get to drive them.

Photo Credits: Top: © Aeromobil / Bottom: Vedran Martinek / Terrafugia