They’re a staple of futuristic science fiction films such as Blade Runner and Total Recall, but the possibility of owning a flying car may be quickly becoming a present reality—provided you can afford the $300,000 price tag.
On Tuesday, San Mateo, California-based start-up Alef announced that Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had approved its Model A flying car, making it the first vehicle to receive approval for use in the U.S., the company said.
But aside from the futuristic, silver bodywork, the aeronautical automobile doesn’t have The Man With The Golden Gun-style wings attached to its sides, nor rotating rockets in its hub caps, per Back to the Future. So how does it take off?
During a video-recorded presentation in October last year, Jim Dukhovny, Alef CEO, who has a background in software engineering, claimed that the company had been conducting flights since 2018 and that the car had an aerial range of 110 miles.
“There is a reason we don’t have flying cars today; it is because it is impossible,” he teased the audience. “Why? The laws of physics. In order to fly, you need an air pressure under the wing to be more than [the] air pressure over the wing… Hence, you need a large wing area.”
This is how modern aeroplanes operate: Large wings on the side of the craft are shaped to push air underneath them with less air travelling over the top. This difference in air pressure creates lift, allowing an aircraft with enough speed to take flight.
But the wings need to be proportionate to the weight of the vehicle they are lifting. And, as Dukhovny noted, a flying car “also needs to be skinny enough to fit in your driveway.” Driving down the freeway with wings stretching out a few meters on either side of the vehicle may cause more than a few fender-benders.
Another hurdle is the shape of the car itself, which “acts as a breaker of the airflow,” the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University graduate said, adding that cars were “one of the most horrible designs for flying.”
While many new cars are designed to have aerodynamic bodywork, research suggests that the average wedge-shaped car has a drag coefficient—the amount of friction resistance relative to its velocity—of between 0.3 and 0.4. By comparison, a Boeing 747 has a drag coefficient of 0.024.
“We did the impossible, but we did not break the laws of physics—we fooled them,” Dukhovny said.
A computer-generated animation showed that the car contains eight rotating blades underneath its permeable bodywork, which allow it to rise vertically. Once it is a few meters in the air, the whole car rotates sideways so that the blades can propel it forward, while the passenger seat turns so that the passenger remains upright during flight.
“The whole car becomes a wing—a biplane, a circular wing,” the founder of the Stanford Science Fiction Society said, adding that the car had “a very specific body-wing geometry” to allow it to fly with limited resistance.
Dukhovny said that while he hoped the car would eventually be used for longer-range flights, its vertical landing and take-off capabilities allowed it to “hop” over congested areas due to traffic jams or road accidents.
Announcing that it had acquired a Special Airworthiness Certification, Dukhovny said in a statement that the approval “allows us to move closer to bringing people an environmentally friendly and faster commute.” Echoing the famous words of Neil Armstrong, he added: “This is one small step for planes, one giant step for cars.”
Alef noted that it had so far seen “strong” pre-order interest, despite costing the same as a Bentley Continental GT, though it did not specify how many units had so far been requested, nor how many it needed to sell to recoup its development costs.
The company noted that the FAA certification “limits the locations and purpose for which Alef is permitted to fly.” Special Airworthiness Certification can carry various restrictions, including limiting safe use for certain tasks—such as aerial surveillance and advertising—as well as for experimental craft.
An FAA spokesperson told sources the Model A received certification on June 12, “for limited purposes, including exhibition, research and development.” However, they added: “This is not the first aircraft of its kind for which the FAA has issued a Special Airworthiness Certificate.” Alef said the Model A will be entirely electric, with a maximum capacity of two occupants. Dukhovny told CNBC in December that he anticipated the cars to be flown by consumers by 2025.