The British company, Parajet, has developed the Parajet Skycar, a flying car running on biofuel (ethanol or biodiesel). It is is currently a prototype that has been the subject of dramatic demonstrations, such as flying over the Sahara (from France to Timbuktu) and over the Amazon rain forest. This high-efficiency, eco-friendly flying car differs sibstantially from previous attempts to add collapsible wings to automobiles or to modify winged aircraft to be suitable for ground driving. Instead of using solid wings, the Parajet is essentially a powered parachute. It uses a paramotor and a parafoil attached to what looks like a dune buggy, but one that can achieve sustained level flight.
The parafoil can fold up and fit in the trunk of the vehicle. Converting from an on-ground vehicle to a flying car takes about 3 minutes. Not bad! Safety is a big plus. If the engine fails, the vehicle can slowly glide back to the ground. If the canopy rips, there is an emergency reserve ballistic parachute that can be deployed. The prototype is said to be fully road-legal.
FutureCars.com has a great review of the car. They like it, but want a better design. The current dune-buggy design is not likely to be a hit, but their next generation body will be more stylish. There have been numerous attempts in the past to make small airplanes for personal flight, including ones that can serve as automobiles as well. The breakthrough is using a paramotor and parafoil (essentially a powered parachute) for that purpose.
In my opinion, this has the potential to be a disruptive innovation in the classical sense of the term as taught by Clayton Christensen of the Harvard School of Business. It is an innovation that is "worse" in terms of standard metrics and the expectations of the market that the established incumbents are trying to meet - such as high speed and the full control offered by winged aircraft - while offering new levels of convenience and ease of use. Yes, a parafoil can't perform anywhere close to a winged aircraft in terms of pilot control and speed, but it is easy, stable, safe, and can meet the needs of low-end users and many non-users. The incumbents in both automobiles and airplanes will not be threatened by this at first and will have neither motivation nor capability to respond, making it possible for this innovation to get off the ground, so to speak, without significant head-to-head competition in its area, assuming that they have adequately handled the intellectual property issues needed to maintain a competitive lead in the powered parafoil area. The combination of intellectual property strategy with disruptive innovation theory, by the way, is one of the key topics we cover in the forthcoming book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue by Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins, and Mukund Karanjikar (John Wiley & Sons, July 2009), with some related information about to be posted on the new website, InnovationFatigue.com. Once the innovation can get a foothold, then the normal process of sustaining innovation can kick in, allowing generation after generation to add advances in diesel motor design, materials, lighting systems, communications, control systems, etc., to add improved features, speed, power, control, and so forth.
While seizing a new market, this vehicle could also make inroads into the helicopter business, allowing low-end users and non-users to gain some of the lower-end benefits of helicopters for aerial surveillance and short trips when roads are inadequate.
The car is likely to appeal to aviators and hobbyists already familiar with paramotors, but if the regulatory environment can be properly managed (one of the areas of innovation fatigue also discussed in the book), this could have the potential to spread to a surprisingly large market. One could see this becoming an indispensible tool in regions where roads are unreliable (much of Africa, for example), giving business leaders, civic leaders, relief workers, hunters, and others the opportunity to travel or survey areas from the area. Interesting air taxi business models could also be envisioned. Stay tuned to see if this innovation takes off!