Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk plans to build cars that fly and swim

Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wants to build cars that can also fly and go underwater. Above, he stands in front of the SpaceX Dragon V2 spaceship at SpaceX's headquarters in May.
Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wants to build cars that can also fly and go underwater. Above, he stands in front of the SpaceX Dragon V2 spaceship at SpaceX’s headquarters in May.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Elon Musk, the California entrepreneur who heads electric car company Tesla Motors and rocket builder SpaceX, wants to combine aspects of each by developing a car that can fly.

“We could definitely make a flying car -- but that’s not the hard part. The hard part is, how do you make a flying car that’s super safe and quiet? Because if it’s a howler, you’re going to make people very unhappy,” Musk told the Independent, a British newspaper in an interview pitching the rollout of a right-hand drive Tesla Model S electric sports sedan in Britain on Monday.

Musk’s Tesla electric car company wouldn’t be the only business looking to make cars fly -- which would be a convenient trick in Musk’s hometown Los Angeles, given the clogged traffic in Southern California.


Terrafugia Inc. of Woburn, Mass., is developing the Transition, a two-seat aircraft with foldable wings that can drive on roads.

Instead of a flying car, Terrafugia calls its vehicle “a street-legal airplane.” It has a steering wheel as well as gas and brake pedals. The Transition is undergoing test flights.

Terrafugia isn’t the first company to try to get a car off the ground. For more than a century, daredevil aviators and freethinking engineers have attempted the concept.

But the development of a flying car — some even backed with well-heeled resources and financing — has been fraught with disappointments.

American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, who designed the aluminum Autoplane in 1917, is often credited as the inventor of the flying car. While it was capable of short bunny hops, it never could achieve sustained flight.

Later in 1926, Henry Ford introduced a 15-foot-long aircraft he dubbed the “Model T of the Air,” the Ford Flivver. The single-seat midget plane was flown by just two men: Charles Lindbergh and test pilot Harry Brooks.


In an interview with The Times two years ago, Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Alan Mulally said a “flying car is a bad idea.”

He said that the engineering requirements for a vehicle traveling for any distance on the ground and one that flies are too disparate and complex to be combined in one platform.

Mulally should know. Before getting the top job at Ford, he headed Boeing Co.’s commercial aircraft operations.

Still, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said there are hundreds of patents and applications for flying car technology.

But if taking to the air doesn’t turn out to be a practical alternative to the jammed 405 Freeway, Musk has another idea -- a car that turns into a submarine.

Imagine the navigation unit in the vehicle telling you to drive off the sand in Venice, turn left and head south to Newport Beach.


“We will be making a submarine car,” Musk told the Independent. “It can transition from being a submarine to a car that drives up on the beach. Maybe we’ll make two or three, but it wouldn’t be more than that. It’s not like we’d sell it, because I think the market for submarine cars is quite small.”

Musk seems to have a hankering for cars that can do more than drive.
Last year, the CEO of Palo Alto-based Tesla Motors and Hawthorne company SpaceX paid almost $1 million for the submersible Lotus Esprit driven by Roger Moore in 1977 James Bond film, “The Spy Who Loved Me.”

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