Dezso Molnar interview Part 2: A different way of thinking about flying cars

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The Terrafugia TF-X concept – is this the way forward for flying cars?(Credit: Terrafugia)

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It's not what you want to hear, but flying cars shouldn't be for everyone. Not in the short term. Not for a long time. In fact, according to multi-disciplinary inventor Dezso Molnar, who's about to launch the world's first flying car race series, anyone who's trying to build a multi-seat, VTOL flying commuter is wasting their time, building a heavyweight energy hog that's over-engineered for the benefit of passengers that just aren't there most of the time. Molnar says it's time for a reality check; there's dozens, maybe hundreds of existing roadable aircraft out there that fly as well as they drive and work within both sets of rules - and that's the small segment he sees a big future in. Here's part two of our rapid-fire interview with Dezso on a road trip in California.

To learn more about some of Dezso's credentials as a pilot, rocket scientist, inventor, land speed record chaser, musician and X-Prize judge, check out part one of our interview. Then continue on, as we drive towards San Jose, where Dezso has a plane to catch.

On flying cars

I decided I wanted a flying car when I couldn't get out of Los Angeles one day. That's when I started the gyrocycle project, which I felt was the best combination of existing aircraft and road vehicles to get in and out of congested areas.

Lots of flying cars have been built. Many brilliant people have done development, and I really want to challenge the position that if you invent something that's interesting or works well, that you need to dumb it down to fit a huge market. Not everything in this world is for everybody. I'd like to provide a positive spin and spotlight for the existing flying cars already out there.

One objective I have now is to create the flying car racing league, which will give these machines a place to shine, and a place to create the conversation that will drive development of something worth having. It's good for aviation, and it's good for ground travel.

On what flying cars can be good for

The number one danger for small aircraft is when people fly in bad weather. It usually happens when the weather goes wrong between airports. They crash while struggling to get to an airport to land. If you can land anywhere in between, with impunity, then you're more likely to do it.

A lot of pilots don't like to land on a highway, because they'll end up spending the rest of their life giving urine samples and explaining to CNN and the police department why they set down on a street. But the fact is sometimes that's the right thing to do. Having the ability to land and drive away in a storm can help. Also, driving from an airport that has bad weather to one that's clear and less windy or foggy to take off … there's a lot of value in that for pilots.

As for ground travel, traffic is often very congested and getting worse. Sometimes the best path is not to take a street, maybe there's a better path through the air. There's a value for both.

On resistance to the idea of flying cars

People still chuckle about the idea of flying cars. The worst dissenters are the ones who say "a vehicle's going to be bad if you try to do two things with it." Well, ducks wouldn't exist if it wasn't better for them to fly and walk and swim. Bugs wouldn't exist with legs if it was better for them to only be able to fly. I really reject these arguments that don't recognize that through evolution, every single bird can walk, ok?

You can't travel on the ground with a 747. You get to the gate and you're stuck taking a bus. You can't take an F15 on the freeway. They are trapped at airports. Evolution shows that there's a lot of value for creatures to be able to travel through different environments. That's best applied to machinery as well.

I want to create a venue to accelerate the development of flying cars and emerge with vehicles that we want to use ourselves – with no concern about whether or not somebody else wants it. And that happens in racing on all spheres, from F1 to foot racing to bicycles to motorcycle racing, et cetera. I simply want to form a racing league that will help develop and promote the use of these machines.

Flying cars should not be for the masses – at least, not yet

A key obstacle facing flying cars is the opinion that the only reason to finance development is to create a mass market commuter's product. That's what's killing it. That's the failure model that's been tried and tried and tried, and failed and failed and failed. The car and motorcycle markets vastly outnumber the tiny aircraft market, so that eventual opportunity is built in if you can just get out of the gate.

What's important right now is that people who really want flying cars can have them; they've been around for 100 years, so they need to focus on getting one for themselves and continue making improvements to perfect it.

We have to get beyond this approach of making incredibly compromised mass-market designs. Just get on with building stuff as well as you can and use it. That's it. That's what flying cars need. We need a couple hundred traveling around every day, passing people on the freeway, passing people in the air and just getting on with traveling and racing. If people want to reduce their commute times, I suggest they move closer to work.

I don't really care about people that want safe vehicles. I care about people that want to BASE jump. Those are the people that drive things in the new world. I'm not designing for people who are focused on their fears, or to provide opportunities for their fears to be extended and coddled. People in the motorcycle and experimental aircraft culture are cautiously optimistic. I support them.

I want to focus on people that want make things better, find ways to do it, and have the sensibilities and the situational awareness to do it in a safe manner. There's a lot of people like that. People like Richard Petty, he's gonna die of old age, not from car crashes. He definitely pushed the limits, and he's still with us today.

People like Buzz Aldrin, who go to outer space and come back, and live a full life and have fun. I don't need to make things for safe people when I can make something for Buzz! Let's find a few of those people and really provide for them and not for the perceived fears of your perceived buyer who most definitely and definitively never brought you a dollar.

On multi-seat vs. single seat flying cars

You need to look around at commuters. Right now we're on the street, and I dare you to find a dozen cars in the next five minutes that have two people in them. And it's a Sunday, so the probability is much higher.

When you're dealing with constants of flight, you include the weight of the pilot, the airframe, and the weight of an engine. And then when you start throwing in variables, like batteries or fuel and then "well, I think I'll have one passenger, maybe two, maybe three … actually six people's really nice. How about 12?" When every person weighs 180 pounds, you push the design into a place it doesn't need to go to allocate space and strength and range for people that are not necessarily in attendance.

You're building machines for people that don't exist, again and again and again, and again, and there's no reason to say it's the right way to get to market, because it has never, ever worked for a hundred years. Nobody has brought one to market, nobody has one, nobody wants one, nobody buys one, nobody uses one because they keep making so many seats that nobody sits in. The constants and the variables don't add up to justify lots of seats for people that don't want them.

When somebody buys a sport bike, what do they want to do? They want to twist the throttle! 160 million registered times! You can't ignore the popularity of one person vehicles and how people will dedicate their time to use them, and derail our chances of flying off the Earth because so many developers insist the market will demand something we have no evidence it will.

That has been done over and over and over and over with every machine that has a tombstone on it. Terrafugia most recently delayed deliveries so it could fight battles for a plastic windscreen and to increase the weight allowance of light sports. Two person, four wheels, overweight. I do not ever expect to see a Transition delivered as they exceeded the light sport weight limits. Now they're circulating videos of the next design, which is a drawing of a machine that does this and does that. And god bless the crew for trying, but if you claim that in six to seven or eight years you might make this thing that supersedes the other thing you didn't deliver, it grows the graveyard.

We need a reality check on the designs. I know what you're saying. The perception that two seats sells things. But as these things grow they become unruly. I learned this years ago, with the guys I worked with from Hiller.

They built the Hiller flying platform, which is a stunning machine. As a one man machine it worked great. I met the test pilot. And then the Navy said, well, the guy that flies it needs to have a gun. And he needs to have a hundred bullets, and he needs to be able to fly ten miles, and then after he shoots the friendly natives he needs to hurry home ten miles, and he needs to carry 100 pounds of bombs, because I have ten fingers and ten toes, so I think 100 is a good number. And they ended up building a machine that was so big and unruly and carried so many things that the machine couldn't be steered anymore. Imagine a surfboard 10 feet wide.

You end up spiraling out of control. The mission objective changed so much that the genius of the machine couldn't adapt – and public opinion has swayed to think the core machine didn't work. It just didn't work as a weapon, and that's all the customer was willing to buy. When people see enough of these things that don't blossom, their belief becomes "that's impossible." And then developers like me have to spend a lot of additional time unwinding that perception, where in actual fact it's happening all around them and they're just biased to ignore the ones that work.

The flying car I'm building now will have one seat, and can carry extra batteries on the ground. So a person can fly somewhere, land, and then throw another 12 batteries on the back, because once you're on the ground the battery weight is comparatively irrelevant.

On why he prefers three wheel designs to four

There are many different design approaches. One challenge can be legal issues – some people design stuff that works physically but doesn't fit the rules. I always make my stuff legal, because I don't like battles beyond engineering. That puts the outcome is in someone else's hands.

Generally they use internal combustion engines, and one of the big challenges is passing smog checks, so you need to consider that when you select an engine. With the new electric motors we're using, and the street bike motors I run right now, fortunately that isn't an issue.

For flight, the certification of an aircraft is a long winded, multi-million dollar process. Conversely, building a one-off experimental homebuilt aircraft or kit plane is extremely easy, so that's what most people do.

I like to work within the motorcycle category, because if you have one to three wheels, it's much easier to get on the road than if you have four.

There's a very short stack of rules for motorcycles, a very big stack for cars. Also for efficiency, cars are not particularly efficient by design anyway. It's not like I really wish I had a four wheel flying car, I actually don't. I don't want one at all, in fact. There's very few four wheel aircraft out there. Some of them are 20, some are 30, but most have three wheels.

Remember to check out part one of our interview, and stay tuned for another installment next week when Dezso talks us through some of his favorite (and least favorite) flying car designs.

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