In 1940, Henry Ford said: “Mark my words: a combination aeroplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.” Nearly 80 years later, no flying car has yet reached production stage.
That may be about to change. Slovakian firm AeroMobil, currently working on its fourth prototype flying car, plans to start taking orders for its vehicles as soon as next year.
The company has recently received a significant boost in the form of investment from David Richards, former chair of Aston Martin, who has also joined its advisory board.
Richards has been keen to emphasise that AeroMobil is not a “pie-in-the-sky” company.
“It does work,” he told The Sunday Times.
“These are proper professionals putting it together. I told my wife, ‘I’m going to have one and park it outside our home in Knightsbridge and fly it to the office or down to Cornwall’,” he said.
Business Insider spoke with AeroMobil’s chief technical officer, Doug MacAndrew, and asked about the progress of AeroMobil’s much-hyped creation.
Business Insider: Could you tell me a little about why you were attracted to AeroMobil, given your background in more conventional engineering?
Doug MacAndrew: I’m an engineer by trade, I’ve been in the automotive industry for 25 years – too long, probably! I’ve always been drawn to projects that have a level of technical uncertainty, that drive innovation and spark new ideas. I’ve been lucky enough always to be part of a team that have been doing something very new – be it Land Rover, or McLaren, or Mercedes. And this project was shown to me, and I was asked to look at it with an open mind, and I’ve tried to do that.
It’s very easy to be involved in a programme like this when you can see it has a level of capability already – you can see the application of your expertise into that product, and you can see how ultimately it could be used to demonstrate an expansion to the market – a new way of developing personal transportation.
BI: If you were driving your AeroMobil car around a city like London, would you have to go to an airfield to take off?
DM: Currently, the point of entry into airspace is controlled from airfields, airports, and airstrips. But airstrips can be very different to what you’d imagine if you were turning up to Heathrow. We’ve designed the product around being able to take off grass strips. And if you were to search just your local area, and look to see how many private airfirelds and airstrips exist, it is quite substantial. So it’s driven around using the infrastructure as it is today because it is quite extensive.
That said, there is very clearly a future vision within the business. So in an out-of-city location, where refuelling stations exist right now, there is an elegant solution: instead of driving up the M40 for a hundred miles, you could potentially pull up at the services at Warwick and take off into that airspace from a grass strip next to the refuelling station after filling the vehicle up, and preparing it to fly.
So there’s an adaption and expansion of the roadgoing and aircraft infrastructure that is envisaged for the future. But right now there are enough points into the airspace – or roadgoing system – that are very flexible and very usable and will provide for those people who are looking for that freedom of use that the product provides.
BI: What do you see as the market potential of the car? Do you see it as replacing the ground car or being confined to the realms of ‘hobbyists’?
DM: We have a framework that allows us that to operate our vehicles right now – today. We’re designing the vehicle around current roadgoing and flight regulations. With anything like this, we shall see exactly how the take-up goes, but the product itself is very much of today.
There’s a definite demand to try and create a level of freedom in personal transport that has been lost to a certain extent – with increased urbanisation, and with the increased density of cars.
So our view is the flexibility and freedom that our car provides will very much re-engage the ‘go-somewhere-when-you-want-to’ type attitude that maybe has been lost to a certain extent. It still exists – that’s why people still buy cars, and buy very expensive cars. But we’re hoping AeroMobil will reinvigorate that attitude, and create a new level of enthusiasm for movement and personal transportation.
BI: What will the car cost?
DM: In all honesty, we haven’t defined absolutely what the price is. It’s not going to be cheap – it has an awful lot of technologies that are very early on in their maturation process, and because of that the price associated with some of the technology is reasonably high.
But with time the technology becomes more and more usable, and in the future, with those technologies secured and demonstrated, we can see a price that would be affordable for a significant number of people.
BI: What do you see as the major challenges that you still need to overcome – technical, licensing?
DM: There are technical challenges with any new product development. Certainly, bringing the level of technical complexity required by a modern car into a product which also needs to satisfy a modern aircraft functionality – that is a challenge in itself.
It’s quite an enthusiastic challenge that we’ve taken on in that respect, though. From the very start, we didn’t want to make a disabled plane or a disabled car: it’s going to be a better plane because it’s a car, and a better car because it’s a plane.
So those two elements don’t have to be layered on top of each other. They can be understood together – a new view, a new type of approach taken that creates a solution that maybe otherwise would not have been imagined.
BI: Do you still have the aim of rolling out production in 2017 or is that being pushed back?
DM: The intention was always that we would not take orders until we have a very clear and very verifiable product by which we can actually place that into the minds of the customers that we imagine the vehicle operating. The plan is still that we will achieve that status and we will be able to take orders next year.
BI: What will the range be – are you looking at international flight?
DM: Across the Atlantic? Well, in a number of hops! Certainly European flights, flights across Africa, those types of distances. We’re not going to name a number, but it’s certainly going to be equivalent to the range that you’d be able to drive a car right now, for instance on a full tank of diesel. So a significant number of hundreds of kilometres.
BI: What makes AeroMobil’s technology different to its rivals and in your view superior to its rival in that marketplace?
DM: When the product started life, we wanted to transform the plane as you see it – as you stand there – into a car, without having a level of additionality or subtraction to make it work.
So our product still has a level of classicism to its construction: when it’s a fixed wing aircraft, it operates in a classical way. Pilots will recognise its operations and its features and its functionality because it has had that level of classicism held against the design. It will drive in the way that will be recognisable to drivers too, but at its heart there is a level of transformation, of using some elements for two things, both in-flight and in-driving in different ways by transforming them into a functionality that gives the most suitable or thriving functionality.
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