If you’ve browsed through any tech magazine at the airport convenience store, you know that the age of “flying cars” is just around the corner. Hardly a month passes without some kind of startup claiming that its very small, foldable propeller-powered airplane is actually a flying car. Some of these contraptions look scarier than others to passengers and pedestrians alike, and a lot of them amount to impractical cars and impractical aircraft, but with bold plans for world domination. The “Uber for flying cars” pitchline seemingly gets a lot of dollars in the world of startups these days, with dreams of air taxis in big cities that can skip over miles of gridlock in minutes being a potent pitch.
One of the latest in this genre of small, folding aircraft that can be driven on the road is the PAL-V Liberty, which is a three-wheel, road-legal capsule with gyrocopter hardware that folds and stows away above its roof. Headed into production in a matter of months with the first deliveries hoped for 2019, it’s on display at the Geneva auto show this week.
Designed to carry two passengers, the PAL-V Liberty is licensed for the road and has a top speed of around 100 mph, courtesy of a 100-hp engine, and a range of 817 miles on a full tank. As an aircraft, it has a top speed of 112 mph but a range of just 310 miles. In other words, it can cover almost three times the distance by not flying.
The PAL-V Liberty can fold up for use on the road.
Even though the PAL-V Liberty looks like a helicopter, it’s actually a gyrocopter: Lift and propulsion are achieved by a single pusher-style propellor at the rear, which in turn rotates the overhead blades that provide lift. This means the Liberty cannot take off vertically but requires a runway of about 1,000 feet, or about one-fifth of a mile. As an aircraft, the Liberty has an operational altitude of almost 11,500 feet, or just a little over 2 miles.
Some assembly is required: The conversion process takes at least five minutes and requires the driver to unfold the rotor blades and to extend the tail section.
A starting price of $400,000 currently makes it one of the more affordable “flying cars” on the market — or almost on the market, rather — but still north of a regular, entry-level helicopter and a handful of pretty nice cars. The good news is that the Liberty is licensed by the FAA and (thankfully) requires a pilot’s license, though we have a difficult time picturing a police helicopter pulling over a flying Liberty to check the pilot’s license.
All of these flying cars with their compromises and fragile bodywork remind us that hardly anyone is working on consumer jet packs at the moment, or something that doesn’t need to go on a public road at all in order to claim the title of a flying car, when it’s really a plane or helicopter that can just fold up really well and drive around. With advances in small, wearable jets and battery technology, we would have thought that wearable jet packs or speeder bikes would present a much more fertile field for development.