Peter Thiel, eat your heart out.
The celebrity PayPal co-founder and Silicon Valley investor famously complained, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Well the good news, Peter, is we now have both. The dream of a car that turns into a plane is a short step, or perhaps drive or even flight, closer to reality, thanks to Juraj Vaculik and Štefan Klein, the pioneers behind Bratislava-based AeroMobil.
At the 2014 Pioneers Festival in Vienna, Vaculik and Klein will unveil version 3.0 of the AeroMobil, a six-meter-long steel and carbon-fiber car that can fly with a range of some 875 kilometers or drive with a top speed of up to 200 km/h.
The roots of this extraordinary vehicle lie in the troubled history of the region. Growing up in what was then a city in Communist Czechoslovakia was a daily reminder of the oppression under which they lived. “Bratislava sits right on the border,” says Vaculik, AeroMobil’s CEO. “There is the Danube river and on the other bank of the Danube is Austria. For us it was like a dream country, we can see it but we could never go there.”
In The DNA Of Aeromobil Is The Feeling Of Freedom
For CTO Klein that dream, always visible but always out of reach, was the inspiration for his passion in life — flying. “I was educated as a pilot in 1970,” he says. “I have flown for 40 years.” Even though the oldest aircraft factory in the world was in Prague (now the capital of neighboring Czech Republic), flying in Communist Czechoslovakia was at best a simulacrum of freedom. “I could only fly in a range of 100 kilometers from the airport, no more. It was very frustrating.”
It was there that the idea was hatched. A car that could fly. Isolation, says Klein, worked in their favor. “Of course at this time we didn’t have any information from any other projects in the West. Therefore our technical solution is different to everybody else’s.”
Even after Communism collapsed and Czechoslovakia threw off the yoke of oppression, that same desire for freedom remained. “Of course a lot of things have changed and there is no Communism, and there are no borders — we are in the European Union — but there are still obstacles which make travel not so free,” says Vaculik. “In the DNA of AeroMobil is the feeling of freedom, freedom to travel.”
We Waste A Lot Of Emotions
“Waiting for planes you have to include going from your home, then to the airport and then wasting hours at the airport,” he says. “Sometimes the flight is the shortest part of the journey. We waste a lot of time, energy — and most important — we waste a lot of emotions.”
This idea of emotion is one that both men come back to time and again. Along with solving the considerable technical issues of building a car that flies (or a plane that drives) is the need for the owner to engage on a personal level.
“The good things, and the things that are changing the world, must not only be functional, but they must also be emotional,” says Klein, who says he has had long talks with designers from Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes about the importance of emotion.
That is why the AeroMobil doesn’t look like other flying cars, which tend to look like planes with their wings cut off. “The biggest obstacle was to produce a non-handicapped car and a non-handicapped plane. Our position was to have a very sporty car which is very attractive which has the same emotions as a sports car. After transformation we want to have an airplane which has the same characteristics of normal planes like a Piper or a Cessna,” says Klein.
Balance Of Emotions Was Crucial
This, as you can imagine, is no easy task. “Airplanes must be narrow and very light, while cars are solid and heavy,” says Klein. “These two things work perfectly in separate industries but in this merged one it was difficult to find the right materials.” Even when they found the right materials there was always the ultimate test: did it feel right?
“There were plenty of times when we would find some solution and it could be useful, but it was somehow handicapped because it respected only one of the sides, and not the balance of design and functionality,” says Klein. “Balance of emotions was crucial for us. It was one of the reasons it has taken us so long. But we are patient and we are happy to have it perfect.”
When on the road the AeroMobil looks a bit like a giant bug with its wings swept back. At six meters long, it is no Smart Car, the compact car made by Daimler, but it is designed to be able to be used in a normal city and park in conventional spaces. The makers claim it has a similar performance to a roadster.
The one thing it doesn’t have is a spacious hold. In order to gain certification as a Light Sports Aircraft (LSA), the take-off weight can be no more than 650 kg. In fact the car clocks in some 200 kg lighter, which means little more than two people and a few cases can be carried.
On the take-off strip, the bug transforms itself. Those wings stretch out to span 8.2 meters, and a rear-mounted propeller fires up driven by the Rotax 912 engine. In under 200 meters of runway or even a grass strip, the plane takes off at 130 kph.
Critics of the AeroMobil have suggested that while its performance as a car may be fine, a video of an earlier flight did not inspire confidence. “It would seem that stability in the air continues to be a major challenge for roadable aircraft,” wrote Flying Magazine.
Needs Just 50 Meters Of Runway To Land
An AeroMobil spokesman said in response: “Flying Magazine was referring to our first test flight where we see AeroMobil take off in high crosswind and at low height. Tests we have done this year proved that we have no issues with stability. We are very confident in the flight characteristics of 3.0. We are doing final tests and we’ll be releasing video from these tests at the end of October.”
While trials so far have all taken place from runways or at the very least landing strips, Vaculik says one key target market is developing nations. “We can use the current infrastructure of roads or private airports, but we don’t want to be dependent on this,” he says. “It’s built so that a grass strip is all that is needed for landing and takeoff.” He says it needs just 50 meters of runway to land.
AeroMobil is aiming to have a production model of its third prototype for sale in 2016 or 2017. While work continues on perfecting the power plant (car engines and aircraft engines are very different beasts, designed to work in completely different ways) and trials continue on different engines, a large amount of effort is going into surmounting considerable legal obstacles. AeroMobil has to be certified as both a car and a plane and in pretty much every country in which it will operate.
“It is built so that it can be certified in an existing category but we need to do this work,” says Vaculik.
The LSA category, he says, “is only about 12 years old and was created just because of new possibilities of new technology and materials. A lot of companies here in central Europe started to use the planes which did not fit in the existing categories. This was created for them.”
But, says Klein, they are pushing to have a whole new category of flying car created. “A motorcycle is not a two-wheeled car; it’s not a bicycle with an engine. It is a separate category. For us it is very important to create a new category of flying car.”
Flight For The Price Of A Luxury Car
While the dream of a flying car has burned inside Klein from his days as a frustrated pilot behind the Iron Curtain, it was not until 2009 that he was able to create AeroMobil, mainly with funding from Vaculik. And it is only recently that the company has started to take off.
The turning point happened last year. “On exactly 25 September we were invited by NASA to showcase the AeroMobil study in Montréal. All we showed them was a video [but] we got so much respect and attention from industry experts, the media, [and] possible partners that this was the date when I felt that this venture will be big,” says Klein. “I decided that I would put even more money on the table. Now it’s growing extremely fast and we’re hiring new people literally each week.”
While neither of the men will be drawn on the expected market price (“Our price at the beginning will be around the same price as a luxury sports car”), they believe that the market is more than just wealthy private individuals or frustrated commuters. “The first market will be early adopters with deep enough pockets.“ Having demanded one so long ago perhaps Peter Thiel will be the first customer.
But the biggest potential market, is in places that have a lack of infrastructure. “That’s many of the growing economies like China, Africa, Middle East,” says Klein. “It is like in that U.S. movie “Back to the Future”: where we are going we don’t need roads.”