Developing a flying car

-July 13, 2017

Having been an automotive engineer in Detroit, I have always been skeptical of flying cars. To my delight, it looks like a Czech engineer has actually gotten roadworthy approvals for his gyrocopter design that uses electric motors for ground propulsion. Pavel Březina, the owner of the Nirvana Autogyro company, has successfully flown and driven his prototype "GyroDrive" (Figure 1). Unlike all the other flying car schemes, Březina has actually gotten a road certificate in the Czech Republic and you can watch him fly and drive the car:



Figure 1
The Gyrodrive combines a gasoline-powered gyrocopter with an electric-powered three-wheel motorcycle (courtesy Nirvana Autogyro).

Březina must be onto something, since there is another group designing a road-able gyrocopter, the PAL-V Liberty. They have been working on this since 2001, and it shows. The promo video (see below) shows the kind of CAD design and real-world testing any automotive product requires.



The thing is, this is another product that is supposed to go on sale in 2018. They have had a working prototype since 2012. Since it is a 3-wheeled vehicle, it only has to pass motorcycle safety and pollution regulations. There is no crash-testing, which would require a structure with much more weight along with air bags and other design hurdles.

Like a lot of great engineers, they may be reaching for a bridge too far. It’s not only a trike, but a tilting trike. Rather than just lash the rotors like Březina does, it electrically lowers the whole tower and then the rotors can fold back in a method they do not disclose. My dad used to say, “Starts out like a castle, ends up like an outhouse.” I hope PAL-V engineers take out the gee-whiz features and just make a simple basic design that they might be able to sell in 2018. Time will tell.

My skepticism in new aeronautical ventures came about because of the Moller Skycar, and the Bede-5 kit airplane. Back in the early 1970s I had a friend give the Bede people $400 as a deposit for an aircraft. That’s $2,300 in 2017 dollars. He lost it all when Bede went bankrupt. This really hurt, not only for the betrayal, but because we were still college students and that money was his life savings. The indiscretions of youth should not be repeated, so watch out for fledgling companies that want to take your money today for an aircraft or a car in the future. Watch out even more if it’s a flying car.

More germane to the flying car is the Moller Skycar. Paul Moller made $25 million when he sold his SuperTrapp motorcycle muffler company. He proceeded to plow that and much more into a 50-year development of a flying car (Figure 2). Like many impractical projects, there was always another key thing needed. After a while, he said he needed to develop a new rotary engine to get the specific power needed for the car. Then it was computer control to keep the thing stable. Moller has never made a vehicle that flew in untethered flight. Eventually he announced a new design, the M200G Volantor (Figure 3). The TV show Mythbusters estimated that Moller has spent about $200 million on the Skycar.


Figure 2
The Moller M200 (l) and M400 (r) have never flown untethered much less gotten FCC certification, despite 50 years of development (courtesy Wikimedia).


Figure 3
Despite the failure of the Moller Skycar, the company now wants to introduce the M200X Volantor. This is a 5-inch wooden model for sale on eBay (courtesy eBay).

This reminds me of the Terrafugia, another flying car I wrote about in 2006. It’s 11 years later, and they promise to have a vehicle you can buy in just a few more years. To their credit, they did fly a prototype in 2009 (see video below). Despite not making anything to production, like Moller, the company recently came out with a new model, the TF-X.


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