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The Motor Marvels

The self-propelled vehicle – or automobile – has come a long way since Karl Benz first patented his ‘horseless carriage’ in 1885. Simply attaching a motor to a wheel has, since then, led to an altering of our perception of time and space and creating, among other things, cities, suburbs and growth of an international motoring community.

With the use of artificial intelligence, new design technology and innovations in materials, scientists, entrepreneurs and researchers from different parts of the world are striving to create new and improved vehicles that can be used by the masses. In the 21st century, then, perhaps we are on the threshold of seeing Hollywood fantasy cars turn into fact. It is quite possible that we may soon have to change our definition of the ‘car’ as we know it. Let’s take you through some of the most interesting advances in automobiles that are likely to change the way we commute in the not-so-distant future.

Beyond the road

Roads were made to enable automobiles to travel quickly between distant settlements. Over the last few decades, much effort has been put in to literally, ‘getting the show off the road’ for automobiles. New automotive Research and Development seems to hint that the road might soon become just a point of access to another mode of transportation for your car – air, or even water.

Cars on the wing

Several attempts to fuse an aircraft with a car have been made throughout history. The Hovercraft – a car that runs on a cushion of air – was once much-touted by science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke, but was eventually proved impractical due to the high level of noise and fuel consumption. The Aerocar by Moulton Taylor in the 1950s was made of wings, a tail and a power plant – a single engine that powered the road wheels as well as the propeller. Henry Smolinski’s ‘Mizar’ was built in the 1970s by Advanced Vehicle Engineers (AVE) by fitting together the rear part of a Cessna Skymaster and a Ford Pinto. This one, however, was a car that you drove to the airport and could be bolted into the aircraft before flying away. Besides, the project collapsed with the death of Henry Smolinski when the Mizar disintegrated mid-air during a test flight. Though none of those mentioned below resemble ‘The Fifth Element’ kind of flying cars, they do come pretty close.

Terrafugia’s transition

The most significant effort in the creation of a ‘Flying Car’ is by a company called ‘Terrafugia’ set up by MIT graduates in Massachusetts in 2006. But this one is a ‘Roadable Aircraft’ called ‘Transition’. The Transition is so designed to fold its wings when not fling and to be used as a legal ‘car’ – or a ‘street-legal airplane’, as they state in their web site http://www.terrafugia.com/. There are no bolts and nothing to put together or dismantle but you’d need to be a driver as well as a pilot to be able to use one of these. Terrafugia hopes to launch its first commercial model in 2011 and has already received 70 orders as of September 2009. This one will be a two-seater, which can travel 725 km at a speed of about 115 km/hr in air.

Moller International’s Skycar

Paul Moller’s invention is the ‘Skycar’ – a personal Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) 4-seat aircraft which, uses four pairs of Wankel Rotary engines, and, it is claimed, can hover 15 feet above the ground. It has four ducted fans with covered propellers to increase safety. Although it is, quite evidently, a small aircraft, it is projected as a ‘car’ since it has the potential to be used to commute over short-distances. This ‘flying car’ has been several decades in the making and Moller has had to postpone projections of its launch more than twice. The present craft under production is the M400 which is planned in single as well as 6-seat versions.

Labiche’s FSC-1

Mitch Labiche’s Labiche Aerospace has designed the FSC-1 which is basically a car that can open out into an aeroplane with the push of a button, or conversely, an aeroplane that can fold up to become a car. When it comes to flying cars, people would prefer something that is more of a car and less of a plane – a conclusion Labiche reached after asking about 3000 people. So, unlike the Moller M400, this can actually be driven on roads.


Samson Motorworks’ Skybike is a three wheeled motorcycle that can be flown or driven on the streets with equal efficiency. Led by Sam Bousfield, an inventor with several patents to his name, this Sacramento- based company hopes to launch a radio-controlled model of its attractively titled ‘Switchblade’ flying bike up for display in a few months.

Parajet Skycar

The Parajet Skycar actually flew and drove its way from London to Timbuktu in January 2009 without a hitch and has been declared the world’s first legal flying car. It has a top speed of 180 kmph and a maximum range of 400 kilometres. The car is basically constructed from a dune buggy combined with a paramotor (one of those paragliding contraptions which have a set of motorized propellers at the pilot’s back) for greater thrust and propulsion and a parafoil (the flat sail of a paraglider) to increase the lift.


Entecho, an Australian company has combined a new rotor technology with unique lifting surfaces to create a flying machine that looks like a typical flying saucer. A centrifugal fan causes the air under the car to move radially from the center towards the outside, generating lift as the ‘skirt’ – the airtight flexible membrane beneath the level of the rotor – blows up, directing the flow of the air downwards.

Automotive amphibians

Want to avoid the traffic jam on the bridge? No sweat. Just press a button and glide across the water at the speed of a motor boat. If you think this sounds like a James Bond movie, here is a list of amazing amphibious vehicles to make you think again.


Using High Speed Amphibian technology (HAS), Gibbs Technologies led by Alan Gibbs has launched the Aquada in the USA. The HAS is a technology that has been developed over a period of seven years and can now even be applied to vehicles weighing up to 10 tons. The Aquada can travel at a maximum speed of 160 kmph on land and of about 49 kmph on water. Unlike the Volkswagen Schwimwaggen launched in 1942, it does not create bow waves to hinder progress over water, but proceeds smoothly like a typical motor boat. The Aquada is a three-seater with only one seat in front. You step into it like you would in a boat but steer it like a car. It uses a 175-horsepower, V6, 2.5-liter, 24-valve engine that enables it to accelerate from 0 to 96 kilometres per hour in less than 60 seconds. Once it enters the water, the wheels can be retracted, like in an airplane, thus significantly reducing the drag. With the press of a button, the wheels retract the car senses it is in water, activates the jet to propel it in water and changes the headlights into marine lights. It is buoyant and cannot sink. Priced at almost $3,00,000, it still lies beyond the average person’s buying capacity. Gibbs Technologies is also working on the ‘Humdinga’ – a concept four-wheel drive car that aims to seat five people and hit speeds of 160 kmph on land and 64 kmph on water .

Sir Tristram

Peter Martin of Northern Ireland, in October 2009, used an outboard motor, welding equipment and waterproof sealant on a Renault Laguna he had purchased for 100 pounds sterling and converted it into an amphibious vehicle. This car-boat, named Sir Tristram covered about 20 miles over sea from Ireland to Scotland, in 7 hours. This one, however, is not a prototype and seems to be a one-off. Martin’s vehicle is to be auctioned on eBay for the benefit of the Help for Heroes charity that assists wounded British soldiers.


WaterCar.Inc was founded by Dave March in California. The company handmakes customized amphibious vehicles in two designs, viz. the Python and the Gator – both of which are said to achieve 60 mph or 95 kmph on water and achieve the same speed in 4.5 seconds on the roads. It offers hundreds of colors to choose from for exteriors as well as interiors, making each car exclusive enough to pay the hefty price tag of 200,000 $.

Riding on air

According to Praveen Nahar, Head of the Transportation and Automobile Design at NID (National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad), sustainable design is the inevitable future of the automobile. While the Copenhagen summit may not have seen any significant breakthroughs for environmental conservation, car designers and manufacturers all over the world have been quietly working to ensure that our automobiles cut down on harmful emissions. One of these options is the compressed air car – or the car that runs on air – or hybrid versions of the same.

Fly like an alien

Air Car

In an extraordinary tie-up with Luxembourg based MDI (Motor Development International), Tata Motors (India) has been working hard for the last two years, to put the finishing touches to a technology that will enable their cars to run on air. With fossil fuels diminishing, fuel prices skyrocketing and global warming threatening us, this couldn’t have come at a better time. The only trouble with air-compression engines is the extremes in temperature. When compressed air is released, these engines become extremely cool, making it difficult to operate them in cooler climates and necessitating heating mechanisms like heat exchangers. While these cars are all set to hit the roads of France by 2011, it’s their features that make you sit up and pay attention. Compressed Air cars usually use a motor powered by compressed air – or combine them with gasoline, diesel, electric or ethanol engines – to help gain higher speeds. France’s MDI plans several such hybrids to tide over this bug.

Tata’s vehicle, called the ‘Minicat’, is purely run on an air-compression engine, is a zero-emission vehicle and might even be launched this year, as the first batch has already completed production at its Uttarakhand factory in Pantnagar. The company claims that the vehicle can reach a speed of 96 kilometres per hour and cover a range of 300 kilometres on a full tank of air.

Pneumatic technologies

Cars like Toyota’s Prius and Honda’s Insight use a petrol engine and braking energy to generate on-board electricity which adds to the power of the vehicle. Engineers led by Prof. Hua Zhao at Brunel University, West London, England, have discovered another way of adapting a regular petrol engine to run on compressed air. The unique aspect of this technology is that the compressed air is generated by using the braking mechanism. Whenever the car brakes, the pistons compress air and push it into a compressed-air tank. If this comes through, it is sure to lead to greener, cheaper and healthier cars.

Automobile add-ons

There’s much more happening on the automotive innovation front than flying, floating or greening-up. With current digital technology, nanotechnology and new materials, car designers seem to have received a license to take their creative ideas into overdrive. Here are a few examples to make your jaw drop.

Shared personal cars

Led by Praveen Nahar, Coordinator of the Transportation and Automobile Design programme at NID, Ahmedabad, and three students of the same institute have come up with three unique designs for the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). These designs, which are going to be used by the Australian car sharing firm, Flexicar. “Instead of owning a car, we might be sharing a car in the near future,” says Prof. Nahar, referring to the concept behind these cars which entails that several drivers use a single car at different times on a regular basis.

These designs involve an incredible level of personalization: When you use a swipe card to enter the car, the car resets all your personal preferences to optimize your driving experience – and this includes the steering wheel, the seat arrangement and your favorite music.

The team includes three students, viz. Sameer Malkhare, Lalit Yaduvanshi and Gautam Nair. Prof. Nahar hopes that, in future, civic administrative bodies may even decide to allow such shared vehicles to receive priority on the streets, once they realize their benefits.

Chameleon Cars

Using a special treatment called Feint- Paint by the Spanish company Payola Forlids, BMW’s MINI Chameleon changes color with the weather. The paint on the car is treated with microscopic magnetic iron oxide particles, which, once a minor magnetic field passes through it, changes color in a matter of seconds. The car is sensitive to both, temperature as well as moisture. This should be seen on the streets of Singapore sometime soon.

Robotic car companion

MIT and Audi have come up with the AIDA (Affective Intelligent Driving Agent) which is a robot head set up on your dashboard, with a ‘neck’ that allows it to swivel and laser color projections on its surface to give it expressions. The AIDA is connected to sensors all over the interior and exterior of the car, which gives it information about the driver’s state of mind (strength of the grip on the steering wheel, etc.), and the status of the seat-belt is off. It also helps the driver get to the destination quicker using alternative routes with the help of GPS.

Augmented Reality System

Imagine this: you’re driving around a corner and you can’t see what’s coming round the bend; but your car shows you the entire scene from behind the wall, even before you’ve reached there.

Denso, a car part manufacturer in Japan, along with Yaser Sheikh of Carnegie Mellon University – and his team - have been researching a camera system that enables a driver to see through walls. While this is still in the nascent stage, the team hopes to put a video processor on the dashboard, which would receive a wireless signal from a roadside camera and project the scene from behind the wall directly on your windscreen, preventing the risk and bother of having to move your eyes from the road to a screen.

The road ahead

Of course, the question is, whether we’ll be able to see any of these contraptions in our lifetimes. But then, did you ever dream you’d see battery powered scooters whizzing around silently on the streets of Indian cities? Hasn’t GPS – once the stuff of science fiction – now become an integral part of thousands of cars in the developed world? Similarly, several of the technologies discussed above are already way beyond the concept stage and are already in use by people like you and me. Don’t be surprised, then, to see your neighbour fly his car into his garage, one fi ne day. Who knows, you might even beat him to it.