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The Flying Car?

Friedrichshafen, a university city in Southern Germany hosts the annual ‘AERO Friedrichshafen’ a global aviation show, this year held recently in mid-April. As home to the famous Zeppelin dirigible factory established in the late 19th century, the Maybach aviation company, which became an automobile manufacturer after the First World War, and Dornier Flugzeugwerke, a prominent aircraft manufacturer that in the 1980s was parented by Daimler-Benz, Friedrichshafen is the ideal host city for such an exhibition.

A star exhibitor this year at AERO is Carplane® GmbH, a company co-funded by the EU and the German State of Niedersachsen engaged in developing a flying car capable of road travel to and from airstrips and flight travel between them. AERO was the first public unveiling of Carplane® as a car. Its maiden flight is “tentatively scheduled for later this year.”

Given the history of flying cars, skepticism about this iteration abounds. Almost from the time cars and airplanes were first invented designers and inventors have been trying to fuse them. Indeed, the scourge of the Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss patented a flying car in 1917 and displayed a prototype, the Model 11 Autoplane at an exposition in New York that same year. The plane never flew and development ended when America entered the First World War.

Inventor Rene Tampier built the Roadable, a car-plane of sorts, for the 1921 Paris Air Salon, flew to the exposition and drove around Paris for two hours—at 15 mph. After the Second World War, redoubled efforts produced Airphibian, Convaircar, Aerocar, Autoplane, Mizar, and, more recently, Terrafugia Transition, Parajet Skycar, and LaBiche Aerospace FSC-1. And some have actually flown: 300 of the “over 2,000 known flying car designs”, according to www.carplane.com.

Today, no commercially produced vehicle bridges “the gap between car and plane travel.” Carplane’s stated goal is to start closing this ‘gap’ by settling “on a design which performs well in both air and road modes” and meets all certification requirements for cars and for airplanes in the Very Light Aircraft (VLA) category (max. 750kgs/1,653lbs.)…[thereby giving] Carplane®’s customers the benefit of its safety having been [government] tested.”

The Carplane design at this stage of development can be likened to an upturned catamaran accommodating two people, each in their own hull. Between the hulls is space for storing and protecting the wings along the length of the vehicle thereby providing the longest possible, unsegmented wing length within the confines of a normal car. A patented mechanism deploys the wings in a smoothly integrated process that wholly converts the car to an airplane. Animations of this process are on the Carplane® website.

Carplane’s slogan —“built for reality” boldly conveys that it has finally met the engineering and design challenges of the flying car. Like the self-driving car, however, overcoming these challenges also raises difficult legal, licensing, and insurance issues. Fans of ‘The Jetsons’ will recall the aerocars buzzing around Orbit City in neatly ordered bubbles. One wonders if the Jetsons’ producer, Hanna-Barbera offered any clues about how we get there from here.

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