Where is the flying car?

The flying car. There's no verb but it's a sentence in its own right. All you have to say are those three words and every man, woman and child sails off into that same dreamy dream. The flying car has been the pin-up of the future since before the present was even old enough to shave. It is the icon in every film set 20 years from now, no matter when "now" may be, and yet we're still not driving them. This year, the calendar has flipped over a new decade and, still, not so much as a sniff.

According to modern cinema, we should more or less have them already. Bladerunner. Set in 2019. Flying car. Back to the Future II. Set in 2015. Flying car. The Man with the Golden Gun. Set in 1974! FLYING CAR! So, where are they? With just 5 years to go until we're all supposed to be driving them around the skies of Hill Valley, we thought we'd better take a look to see if all is on schedule.

As it happens, when you start looking into it, you discover that flying cars of a sort have been around for quite a few years in the shape of what are known as roadable vehicles. They're creations like the Transition from Terrafugia - a small plane with fold-up wings that you can drive to the airstrip at top speeds of 30mph - or the Wagner Aerocar - an old roadable helicopter design that never quite took off, if you'll pardon the pun. But that's not quite the same. The flying car needs to be a vehicle that isn't just able to drive on the road but that can do so with aplomb.

Generally speaking, we're talking about something that still looks like a car; something without wings really - unless, like Scaramanga's AMC Matador, they're retractable. What this seems to come down to are what are known as VTOL craft - Vertical Take Off and Landing. Much like the Harrier Jump Jet, these vehicles have directable jets or fans that allow them to hover and give the pilot precise control, much as you would driving a car only using the third dimension of altitude as well. The trouble, of course, is keeping the costs down and the cars light while leaving them durable and easy to control at the same time.

There are plenty concepts and working prototypes out there ranging from the futuristic but untested like the Skyrider X2R to the absurd but functioning Hummingbird flying platform. You rather get the feeling that most of them are just too expensive ever to exist - certainly in the foreseeable future - or too raw and impractical for mass production. There are one or two of these though that are beginning to look like possible candidates.

Paul Moller has spent the last 50 years trying to come up with an affordable model of the flying car for future generations and produced his Moller M400 Skycar. It runs on ethanol which burns clean with carbon dioxide the only, debatably, polluting exhaust fume. It has a projected top speed of 350mph, a range of around 750 miles, it weighs just under a tonne and can carry 340kg - but then, that's just projections. For the moment, it can do this...

 

 

...and it doesn't exactly look like a whizz on the roads at the moment - not with those little shopping trolley tyres. All the same, you can pick one up on pre-order from Firebox for £324,000 with the warning that the M400 is only at concept stage at the moment.

A closer design is also in development by Israeli company Urban Aeronautics who would probably be the only ones not to refer to the X-Hawk as a flying car. As far as they're concerned it's to supplant helicopters in close urban terrain use and will be available to the military and services, primarily. All the same, this twin turbine powered craft certainly looks the part, although suffers from the same wheel design as the Moller M400.

Interestingly, both companies have secondary projects that look even more like the kind of thing that the public has been waiting for. UA's AirMule looks every bit the kind of vehicle sci-fiction has been telling us would exist for ages now. If that's not a stripped down version of the Spinner or the raw carcus of 2015 DeLorean, then we don't know what is. Best of all, it's just passed a successful test flight where its 730hp turbo-shaft engine and two main-lift rotor fans managed to maintain near perfect three axis control and hover at a height of 60cm off the ground. The results were above and beyond what the company had hoped for and now has confidence that the Mule will be able to fly even in windy and rough conditions.

Sadly, there are still no wheels on the thing and it appears that all of this work is really for just a precursor to the X-Hawk. Still, it proves it's all more than just theory and it takes little imagination to see that it's just a short sidestep from the AirMule to the flying car.

The closest look yet to the flying car, of which we all dream, has to go to Paul Moller's Autovolantor. Based on the fuselage of a Ferrari 599 GTB, only with eight turbine fans stuffed inside it, the vehicle was designed on request from a private party looking for a vehicle that could fly its way out of traffic jams and touch back down on open roads.

It all works in theory, which is obviously barely worth the paper the schematics are printed on, the trouble is that this vehicle with a hybrid rotary/electric engine, a flying cruising speed of 135mph and an airborne range of 104 miles would cost around $3m. Naturally, the company reckons they could get that price tag down a smidge, but the interested party appears to have had reservations and the Autovolantor is on hold indefinitely.

One reason might be because a flying car does actually already exist. It's road legal, it runs on biofuels, it'll do 180kph on the ground and 110kph in the air at heights of around 2000-3000ft. All that, and it only cost around £35,000 to make. The trouble is that the SkyCar - as it's also confusingly known - isn't perhaps quite the good looking futuristic design we all had in mind. It's a dune buggy with a parachute and a big fan strapped onto the back, but it's hard to argue as it's already managed a journey by road and air from London to Timbuktu. It made it over the Channel, the Pyrenees and the Straits of Gibraltar too.

Whether it counts in your book is another question, but you'd have to agree that it's a starting point and an incredibly viable one too. Better still, you can actually buy one with delivery promised for later this year for £50,000 including a £10,000 deposit. Not bad for a slice of the future, even if it's not quite the VTOL craft you had in mind.

So what about the flying car that we're all after, then? What of the Spinner, the DeLorean, Korben Dallas's taxi cab from the Fifth Element? Pocket-lint tried to get hold of Nissan, Honda, BMW, Ford and all the other mainstream motor-vehicle manufacturers to find out how they were getting on the with production. Nobody was willing to talk about it. To us, that indicates the flying car must be very close indeed.