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Are Flying Cars Legal?

By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

It's been 60 years since George Jetson first flew his space car across American TV screens.

Since then, many of us have dreamed of a day when we too might zoom around in an airborne auto. Of course, flying cars have remained mere fantasies all this time, but if you are one of the Jetsonian dreamers, there's good news: Flying cars may be just around the corner.

On July 15, the Federal Aviation Administration gave the thumbs-up to a winged three-wheeler called the Samson Switchblade. If your heart is racing at this news, you need to remain patient, however. The FAA's certification of airworthiness doesn't mean you can zoom around in a Switchblade quite yet. The agency's action gave a green light for its manufacturer, Samson Motorworks of Meadow Vista, California, to begin flight testing.

However, you can take heart in Samson's pledge to have Switchblades available for purchase within about 18 months once they complete the tests.

Toys for the Wealthy

And it will help immensely if you are rich. Samson says the base price will be about $170,000 and — get this — you'll have to assemble most of it yourself from a kit. That is because the FAA classifies the Switchblade as an "experimental aircraft," meaning that owners must do at least 51% of the assembly themselves. That task could take months of work, but Samson is offering a "Builder Assist Center" that could cut the job to one week if you want to pay an extra $20,000.

It's clearly a toy for the wealthy, but in early August Samson said it had 1,670 people on a reservation list. It's free to sign up; but once you do, you will have to pay $2,000 within 45 days of the first public flight (which should be soon) to keep your reservation active.

The Switchblade's wings swing out from underneath the cabin with the press of a button, something like how the blade of a switchblade knife swings out. When the wings are tucked away, it's basically a sports car that can reach 125 mph. In the air, it can move at 160 mph.

However, flying the Switchblade requires 1,100 feet of runway for takeoff and 700 feet for landing. In other words, Switchblade owners will need to drive their flying cars to an airport — or something like an airport — if they want to go airborne.

They'll also need a pilot's license. And getting insurance for flying cars seems like a no-brainer, but no such insurance currently exists.

Also, nobody knows what the regulatory scheme for flying cars might look like. Cities now are beginning to think about how they will manage flying cars someday. Will they need to dedicate separate areas of land for takeoffs and landings? Should they be able to fly at any time or only during certain hours? Should there be new licensing requirements?

And there are legal questions that need to be answered. Will inspections be required before flights as pilots currently do? Who will oversee flight patterns — the FAA or the state? In what situations do aviation laws take precedence over motor vehicle laws? Should we start thinking about flying traffic and safety cops?

Eyes on eVTOLs

Although the Switchblade is likely to be the first true flying car in the U.S., there's an increasing number of flying craft that people can buy and operate. These are called electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, or eVTOLs, and can't accurately be called flying cars since they can't also traverse roadways.

These aircraft are similar to drones and can move about by omnidirectional fans after a vertical lift-off. For aspiring George Jetsons, eVTOLs are incredibly attractive because under FAA regulations, "ultralight" eVTOLs — those that weigh less than 240 pounds — don't require a pilot's license or registration with the FAA, but they can't operate at night or over a congested area. They are considered recreational.

Unconstrained by FAA regulations, a Swedish company called Jetson says it is delivering the first 100 ultralight Jetson ONE eVTOLs in the U.S. later this year. But be forewarned: Although you don't need a license to operate them, you'll need $92,000 to buy one.

In June, the company released a video it called the "World's First EVTOL Commute to Work." But because eVTOLs can't fly over congested areas, commutes to urban workplaces can't happen. However, people with an eye toward the future are coming up with plans to build "vertiports" in open, unpopulated areas on the outskirts of metro areas. One such plan for a 56,000-square-foot vertiport near Orlando, Florida, is scheduled for completion in 2025.

While the Switchblade and, presumably, other true flying cars will become a reality soon, the eVTOLs are the aircraft that are catching the attention of transportation planners. They are drawn to it as a way to decrease roadway congestion, and they are making serious plans now to accommodate them.

In March, the FAA and the United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority issued a joint statement that they are working together to develop certification for "eVTOL aircraft, production, continued airworthiness, operations, and personnel licensing."

"Air taxis" are at the center of these discussions, and the aviation industry is clearly interested. On Aug. 10, United Airlines announced it will make a $10 million down payment to get 100 flying taxis from Archer Aviation. Delivery is set to begin in 2024 pending regulatory approval.

Summing up: Flying cars of various types really are just around the corner. You probably can't afford your own, but you can look forward to riding in an air taxi in the not-too-distant future. And you can look forward to the day when the sky will be a much busier place.

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