“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” Doc Brown says, before flipping down his reflective goggles and launching his nuclear-powered DeLorean into the air.
If you think you’ve heard that line too many times, try being Paul DeLorean. He’s not just the nephew of John DeLorean, founder of the short-lived automaker that’s now best remembered for its car’s starring role as a time machine in the Back to the Future movies. He is the CEO and chief designer of DeLorean Aerospace, the company he founded in 2012 to develop a real life flying car.
Earlier generations of DeLoreans worked as coach builders, so although he may cringe at the name recognition he has accepted it. “We’ve been in transportation forever—it’s in my blood,” he says.
That heritage has led him into one of the hottest areas of transportation development today. He plans to build a two-seat vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) personal air transport vehicle (what the rest of the world calls a flying car). That moves him well out of sci-fi movie cliche territory and into the company of Uber, Airbus, Darpa, Larry Page, and a ton of startups.
Experts working in the field say that, as far-fetched as flying cars sound, the confluence of new lightweight materials, better batteries, and sophisticated computer controls means these visions—like Uber’s plan to launch a flying fleet in Dubai by 2020—aren’t unrealistic.
Add the business model of ride-sharing, which removes the up-front purchase cost, and there’s even a business case for getting these things to work in cities. The really tricky part, though, will be figuring out how to safely deploy these things, especially when it comes to air traffic control and certification.
DeLorean’s DR-7 aircraft doesn’t look as outlandish as some concepts, but that’s not saying too much in this field. It has two sets of wings, a pair up front and another at the back, plus some winglets underneath. Two large ducted fans, mounted along the center line, front and back, swivel from horizontal for takeoff, to vertical for forward flight.
The aircraft is nearly 20 feet long and 18.5 feet wide, but the wings do a clever Transformers-style hinge and pivot to tuck in against the side, so it can squeeze into a large garage. Propulsion is all electric, and DeLorean aims to make the craft self-flying, so anyone can use it, no special license required.
The Los Angeles area company is still in the R&D phase, but has already built two scale models. The first one was just 30 inches long, to prove the physics works. The next was an engineering model, one-third scale. “We are moving forward on a full-size, piloted prototype which will carry two passengers and is designed to operate, fully electric, for a range of 120 miles,” says DeLorean.
That’s an optimistic range figure for a battery-powered aircraft. For comparison, Neva Aviation’s AirQuadOne, with fans at each corner, promises 25 miles. Airbus’ Vahana project is shooting for 50. Both are more than enough to get you from one side of a city to another, flying over the suckers stuck on the freeway. But DeLorean wants to fly further, like all the way to your cabin in the mountains. “You can cruise at higher altitude, with greater efficiency,” says DeLorean. “It’s designed so that you don’t have all the drag.” Another advantage of wings is the ability to glide if the motors cut out, increasing the chances of a safe landing.
The company is aiming to complete a full-sized flying prototype within a year. DeLorean he’ll find an area of empty California desert and “fly the hell out of” a radio-controlled version before sticking anybody onboard.
As for when you’ll be able to buy one, and how much you’ll need to hand over, that’s still to be determined. But DeLorean sees his vehicle as more than just a plaything for rich people. “The design really solves a lot of major transportation problems and inefficiencies, such as deteriorating infrastructure, pollution, and road congestion,” he says.
With his enthusiasm and some realistic engineering, experts believe it may only be five to 15 years until nobody needs roads to get where they’re going.