It’s the question people have been asking for generations, and the answer is usually that it's five years away and will always be five years away. In fact, according to an MNN post from five years ago, it should already be here.
As usual, Randall Monroe of XKCD answers the question better than anyone: other technologies advanced by leaps and bounds, doing things that could not even be imagined when we first asked the car question — things that everyone could afford and do not fall out of the sky.
But some never gave up on the dream of the flying car, including the Italian company Terrafugia. It introduced an upgrade earlier this year that addresses many of the problems of the earlier vehicle,by picking up on many of the trends taking place in both aviation and in cars. Now it has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to begin flight testing of a model in U.S. air space. It's only a one-10th size model, can only go 100 miles per hour at lower than 400 feet, but approval will let the company "test the hovering abilities and gather flight characteristics data."
The president of Terrafugia notes that there's increasing demand for personal flight. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, all the one percenters helicopter everywhere because driving is impossibly slow and increases the chances they will be kidnapped.
On top of this demand for better personal flight, there is an explosion in Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). Amazon has been making headlines for months with talk of drone-based delivery services, Google’s widely publicized work in the field of self-driving cars continues to progress, and the unprecedented growth of companies such as Uber and Lyft exposes the immense inadequacy of traditional modes of personal transit.
The company's new flying car drives like a car, takes off vertically like a drone and then flies horizontally like a plane. It's driven by electric motors until it's in flight, where it switches to ducted engines. It's all automatic and self-driving; this means you can drive one without a pilot’s license, and “should be statistically safer than driving a modern automobile.” It will automatically avoid other air traffic, bad weather or restricted airspace. it will have a backup parachute system if the auto-landing system fails. It won’t be cheap, but then neither are top end McLarens, Mercedes and Bentleys.
It is likely that TF-X™ will be more expensive than a “normal car” due to the higher costs of the necessary light-weight materials, but with investment in automotive scale production, early studies indicate that it is possible that the final price point could be on-par with high-end luxury cars of today.
Will this actually happen? Technologically, it’s probably doable, although Terrafugia’s first flying car, which is much more plane-like, is well behind schedule. Jim Motavalli wrote about it earlier in his terrific overview of flying cars:
I saw Terrafugia’s work in progress at the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance earlier this month. A spokeswoman told me, “We’re anticipating a delivery in the first half of 2016.” Why the delay, I asked. “It’s not really a delay,” she said. “A lot of work has to be done, and it has to proceed in cooperation with the amount of funding that’s available.”
They may have bitten off a lot technologically here, what with it being a self-driving electric hybrid car/drone/airplane, but I suspect the real problems will be political, social and regulatory. The Guardian describes the scene in Sao Paulo:
Above, the space-age world where flying news teams trawl the skies for their next scoop and wealthy executives glide effortlessly between luxury condominiums, beach resorts and business meetings; below, the gridlocked mayhem where the vast majority of residents crush together in an orgy of congestion and motorcycle crashes.
This is a recipe for anger and perhaps even revolution. I suspect that mixing flying cars for the very wealthy above with the 110 million rifles and assault weapons owned by the frustrated people below is not a good idea.
Dude, where's my flying car? It's being tested now.
Will these be filling the skies in a few years? That depends on politics as much as technology.