The auto industry has seen its share of technological leaps, whether it was the advent of electric starters, automatic transmissions or hybrid gas-electric powertrains. And don't forget hideaway headlights.
One leap that engineers and tinkerers have never quite made, however, but refuse to let die: the flying car.
Year after year a few more try. Of all those stuck stewing in traffic gridlock, who hasn't imagined soaring Jetsons-style directly to a destination?
Most flying cars never get off the page, let alone the ground. The few that do are bedeviled by lack of funding, impracticality, limited appeal or fears they may simply break apart in flight — as some have.
The fact is that these keystones of modern transportation — cars and planes — have basic differences that make them a match made in hell.
"It's like trying to mate a pig and an elephant," says Lionel Salisbury, editor of the Roadable Times, a website that has made him a de facto chronicler of flying car attempts. "You don't get a very good elephant, or a very good pig."
Today, a new crop of magnificent men and women believe advanced materials and sounder business practices finally will allow their flying machines to defy skeptics.
They range from a guy who just built a prototype three-wheel flying motorcycle in the driveway of his Los Angeles home to a Woburn, Mass., company with more than 50 orders for a two-seat car that flies. Some designs call for wings that telescope. Some fold, manually or at the push of a button.
No dreamers allowed. Only cold-eyed realists. Aware of how quickly they can be branded kooks, the new breed deliberately discourages the label "flying cars" and eschews Hollywood fantasies such as Harrison Ford cruising the skies of Los Angeles in Ridley Scott's 1982 Blade Runner.
Their preferred terminology is "roadable aircraft" — a plane you can drive to the airport, then sprout wings and fly off into the sunset. They see early adopters as private pilots.
"You get a lot of people who have the Jetsons dream of one of these things in everyone's driveway. Maybe that will happen someday, but it's not something you can build a business on now," says Carl Dietrich, CEO of Massachusetts-based Terrafugia.
The effort has been helped by innovations in cheap, lightweight engines and strong, light materials such as carbon-fiber composites. They could finally lead to an affordable vehicle equally at home on the interstate or the runway.
Today's group follows pioneers such as Paul Moller, who has pursued his vision of a flying car since 1970. He predicted to USA TODAY in 1994 that he would be mass producing his M400 Skycar by 2000 and selling it for as little as $30,000. His company is still alive — and he's still trying to start production.
Moller was far from the first. Salisbury, a former pilot living north of Toronto, says he's found records of attempts at a flying car formulated "within months of the Wright brothers." The first patent was issued 15 years later in 1918.
At least 100 serious tries followed. The original Aerocar of the 1950s was among the most successful, with five built, says Jake Schultz, author of A Drive in the Clouds — The Story of the Aerocar. It was a novel design: The wings detached to turn into a trailer towed behind the car. He says at least one is still flying and three are in museums.
Developed by private pilot Molt Taylor, the Aerocar was one of only two flying cars to be certified by the predecessor agency to the FAA. An aircraft company later known as Ling-Temco-Vought looked at the Aerocar, but didn't get enough orders to justify production. Ford Motor looked, too, but lost interest, so Taylor started building sport aircraft.
Salisbury says it was 1970s entrepreneur Henry Smolinski who developed a wing and engine to be hooked to the back of a Ford Pinto, a subcompact car in the era, with hopes of production.
"It was fun," says Bert Boeckmann, whose Galpin Motors in Los Angeles is the nation's largest Ford dealership. He took a test ride in the Flying Pinto to an altitude of about 10 feet.
But the operation "was kind of working on a shoestring" and didn't pay enough attention to safety. Smolinski and a colleague were killed in 1973 when a wing collapse led to a fiery crash.
"Henry said if he ever died, he would like to die in his Flying Pinto," Boeckmann recalls.
Such structural risks inevitably come into play as inventors try to make a car light enough to get off the ground.
"Weight is one of the problems," says Bob Blake, an auto historian in North Carolina. "You're trying to make something that's designed for the highway to go into the sky. Even now, with the lightweight composite materials, it's more of a novelty than something practical."
But the latest entrepreneurs believe otherwise and are convinced they can strike the balance. Drivable aircraft now being developed include:
Dietrich says he thought most interest in his carbon-fiber craft would be from "wealthy playboy types. We have a couple of those but have a lot of retired couples who want to use it to fly around for fun."
He says his company has 10 employees and that he's been working on the Terrafugia Transition's design since 2004. Design goals include a range of 500 miles and conversion from car to plane or vice versa in about 15 seconds.
Dietrich says more than 50 have already been ordered. The first flight is planned by the end of the year, and he hopes deliveries can begin in 2010.
At a projected price of $194,000, the Transition "is not a replacement for a Honda," he says, Rather, it's meant to provide "a fundamental new freedom that has never existed in one package. And we know there is a market for it."
Mitch LaBiche believes he has the winning formula for his flying car: The wings extend from the car with the push of a button, instead of being bolted on or unfolded.
LaBiche Aerospace settled on the configuration after interviewing about 3,000 people to find out what they wanted in a car that could fly. "Most people most interested in flying cars were already pilots," LaBiche says. "They wanted to drive to a local airport, take off, land at their destination — and then reverse the whole process to come home."
He says, "People basically structure their lives around where they live and work. We are a car-based society, and 75% of our travel is less than 80 miles, so people want something that acts more like a car than a plane."
LaBiche is taking orders for the FSC-1 as a buildable kit costing $175,000. He hopes eventually to get the craft federally certified — an expensive proposition — so it can be sold as a fully-built unit.
"We want to show people what we can do," he says of his six-worker company. "Once we have enough of them out there, some history and some backing, we can go out and attract the $250 million we need."
Sam Bousfield came up with a futurist design for a three-wheeled flying motorcycle with wings that telescope so it won't be blown around on the highway.
Bousfield, whose Samson Motorworks is based near Sacramento, says engineering is underway and he hopes to have a half-scale, radio-controlled model flying in a few months.
He hopes to be able to produce a full-size kit version that could sell for about $50,000. At that price, "We feel we can sell at least 1,000 kits a year," he says.
After a decade working at Rocketdyne, a big aerospace company, Joseph Caravella had saved up more than $100,000 to be able to quit and pursue his dream: a flying three-wheel motorcycle.
The idea came to him after he got a speeding ticket driving from Indiana to Virginia while in college. He'd been clocked by an aircraft.
Caravella Aerospace's design calls for a lightweight single engine that powers both the motorcycle and a rear-mounted propeller from an enclosed cockpit. Aimed at commuters, he sees cost as a key advantage for the single-seat CaraVellair, as he's named it: He believes it can be produced as a kit for $50,000. He hopes to have a version flying by 2010.
Caravella spent months working in his garage and driveway with dad Joe Sr. to finish the non-flying prototype in time for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh aviation show earlier this month in Wisconsin. Terrafugia and Samson also were displayed at the show.
While Moller's Skycar won attention, it has been grounded by cost. Moller International has moved to a less ambitious project designed to make sales, not just headlines.
Moller is working on a saucer-like, ground-effect vehicle. The M200X prototype, possibly to be marketed as the Neuera (pronounced: new era), would "fly" — actually hover at less than 10 feet — and travel for an hour at speeds of up to 75 miles per hour. It is not a true plane and, the company says, would not require a pilot's license.
Moller general manager Bruce Calkins says the 17-worker company in Davis, Calif., hopes to build 40 for delivery starting in 2010 at up to $250,000 each. But he considers it just a way station on the way to producing a car that really flies. "Eventually, the common vision of having a flying car is going to be true."
Matt Novak, however, remains unconvinced. The host of Paleofuture.com, a blog that looks at past predictions of the future, says flying cars look even further away these days.
"We had this sort of optimism in the '50s and '60s, a feeling that things were inevitable because of technology. And flying cars were on the short list," Novak says. "I don't think we're going to have freeways in the sky any time soon."
Woodyard reported from Los Angeles and Carty from Detroit.