In Search of The Flying Car

In the age of cellphones, automation and computerization, Ever wonder what a world with flying cars would be like?

A spinner flying car rendering inspired by Ridley Scott’s beautifully-realized sci-fi film, Blade Runner 2049 (Benoit Lebel via ArtStation)

The subject’s been beaten to death by writers, scientists, engineers, futurists and countless others – yet it remains a question that we, as a civilization, haven’t answered.

Where are all the flying cars?

First, let’s start with the theoretical concept. A flying car functions much like any vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, with the ability to land and take off anywhere, without the need of a runway or landing pad. The big catch is that unlike existing machines such as helicopters and VTOL jets, a flying car is wingless and unburdened by propellers or other flight-related bits that stick out of the fuselage. More importantly, it’s like a car, compact in size, easy to operate with simple controls, and capable of carrying two to four passengers.

Of course, this is all theory. It wasn’t until the 60s when flying cars took shape in public view, such as the glass-domed mini-saucer things depicted in The Jetsons.

“This is great honey, but it’s really f*cking hot in this damn thing!” (Cartoon Network Image)

That’s not to say others haven’t tried even before that in real life. In 1949, the Taylor Aerocar was unveiled to the world, a tiny coupe with a giant propeller and tail on its back with wings attached. Naturally, it had a few drawbacks. When not in flight, it had to tow all the airplane bits behind it, it needed nine different licences to operate, and only six were built, so not exactly as accessible as a Civic.

Still, the Aerocar did fly:

Then there was the UFO-shaped Avrocar (or Avro Canada VZ-9), developed during the Cold War in the 1950s by the U.S. Air Force in total secrecy, right here on Canadian soil.

What they didn’t realize back then, is that they accidentally invented a drone. (Avro Canada)

Despite multiple prototypes and successful flights, the U.S. military stuck with its more tried and true helicopter development for VTOL aircraft, but that didn’t stop the private sector from drumming up ideas for an every-day flying car.

Such was the case for the AVE Mizar, a flying car prototype developed by the Advanced Vehicle Engineers between 1971 and 1973 in Van Nuys, Los Angeles, Ca. The Mizar followed a similar idea to the Aerocar by attaching an airframe to a car, however unlike the Aerocar, which was all custom and handbuilt, this was the marriage of a Cessna Skymaster and… a Ford Pinto. And, like the Aerocar, the airframe could be detached so the car can be driven on normal roads.

“Linda, you gotta believe me. It was a flying Pinto!”

As ridiculous as it seemed, the Mizar flew, and flew well, raising hopes that a practical flying car was just around the corner. It was even dubbed, “simple to operate as an airplane, more convenient than any ordinary automobile.”

Sadly, such ambition ended in tragedy in September 1973, when part of the Mizar’s right wing folded in just after takeoff, causing the aircraft to spiral out of control and plunge to the ground. Both its inventor, Henry Smolinski and AVE president Hal Blake, were instantly killed in the crash, putting an abrupt end to their dream.

Following the accident, decades went by with little to no development from anyone, until an eccentric inventor and flying car nut, Paul Moller, decided to take his own kick at the can in the early 1990s. The result was the Moller M400 Skycar, a wingless, quad-engined craft that resembled a spaceship rather than previous plane-like “flying cars.” Moller’s impressive prototype gathered worldwide attention, especially after making the front cover of 1991’s Popular Mechanics magazine. The future of flying cars seemed very possible.

“Anyone can Fly the Moller Skycar” (Image: Moller International)

Unfortunately, Moller’s story isn’t a positive one either. Despite much hype, including a tethered low-flying demonstration, the Skycar didn’t really prove to anyone that it could practically (and safely) fly as Moller said it would. Having no faith from the FAA and no investors, Moller finally declared bankruptcy in 2009, leaving many unanswered questions about his futuristic machine.

In recent years, there have been multiple other attempts, with various degrees of success, including the Terrafugia (not a cool name at all for a flying car) and the Opener Blackfly… but neither are what you’d call flying cars.

At best, anything we’ve seen in the last 20 years are either stubby airplanes or fat, low-flying drones. That’s pretty damn disappointing, considering there are literally millions being invested into these bloody things. I mean, a kid and his buddies built a flying bathtub in his garage without backing from any government, or major corporation.

The Spinner

This, at last, brings me to Blade Runner. It was, in my opinion, the first time when flying cars were depicted in a sense that was at least believable: behold, the Spinner, as first seen in the first smog-drenched scene of the film.

A police spinner is seen travelling over a dystopian Los Angeles in Blade Runner.

Notice that there are no “skyways” filled with hundreds of thousands of these things. That’s because in the original Blade Runner (which, ironically, happens in 2019) only police and the very wealthy drive spinners. That’s relatable in today’s car world, as any new and revolutionary tech first goes in luxury and exotic cars; only later do masses get the same amenities.

In Blade Runner 2049, the Spinner is given a polished modern look, further solidifying what flying car should look like.

A rendering of a flying car by Blade Runner 2049’s conceptual designer George Hull. Notice there are no engines sticking out, no wings, nothing we’d call “conventional flight” today. (Image via ArtStation)

Let’s take a closer look at the protagonist’s personal spinner, which, by no official explanation, is a Peugeot.

(Benoit Lebel via ArtStation)

As seen in the movie, Officer K’s spinner is a coupe with Lamborghini-style opening doors. It’s sleek, has three wheels (including one in the rear end) that retract into the body during take off/landing, and also has a security drone that detaches from its roof. It’s tricked out with other stuff, but I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen the movie yet.

(Benoit Lebel via ArtStation)

Perhaps what got me more was the design of the interior, which 3D artist Benoit Lebel brings to life beautifully. Nothing in it really seems out of place or unconventional; there are no silly holograms or lasers, and the large digital touchscreens can be found in anything from a Corolla to a Tesla today.

Arguably, the first conventional flying car design you don’t need to be an astronaut to operate. (via ArtStation)

More importantly, the flight controls are not stupidly complicated. You have a steering wheel when driving the Spinner on roads, and two joysticks when in flight mode. Simple, right? If a person can learn to daily-drive a 3,500 lb vehicle, they should be able to operate a flying car. Emphasis on should.

We don’t know anything about the spinner’s propulsion system as it’s not revealed in either Blade Runner films. That being said, we know it doesn’t run on magic thrust either, as (SPOILER ALERT) the second movie shows very clearly that a flying brick is still a flying brick without computers or power, or wings.

At 2:06, K’s spinner gets zapped by lightning, causing total loss of power.

Point is, anything’s possible. In the 70s, NASA dropped the Enterprise, the first-ever space shuttle orbiter, off the back of a 747 to see if it would fly or just plummet to earth – it didn’t, and thus the Space Shuttle program was launched, with its own hits and misses along the way.

“F*ck it. Let’s just see what happens.” (NASA Image)

Maybe I’m wrong in assuming this, but if it’s one thing I’ve learned over the years is that we, as humans and as a civilization, are capable of achieving pretty much anything we put our minds to. Biggest problem though, is where we invest all that energy and money. After the space race was over, few really cared about going to the moon and beyond; trillions of dollars were instead spent on unnecessary and destructive wars, and still are on weapons and military technology.

While all that may seem necessary, the bigger reality is that much of our “bigger picture” development has stagnated, focused more so on commerce rather than evolution, which is also why we are still struggling with 19th century problems, such as pollution, hunger, inequality and war. I mean, we haven’t even figured out electric cars yet, and that’s something that’s been on our agenda for nearly as long as cars have been around.

If there’s one bit of consolation I have, it’s that we’ve seen throughout the last century or so that people, whether they are CEOs of a major enterprise, or a bunch of youngsters playing with tools in a shed, are fascinated by flight, and that many, even at the cost of their own lives, will keep trying new technology.

So, while many of us may not see a true flying car in our lifetimes, I believe we have the vision to make it happen exactly as we’ve imagined it this whole time.

Because we have to.

(Benoit Lebel/ArtStation)
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