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Can Elon Musk Actually Make A Flying Tesla Car?

(Source: forbes.com)

Elon Musk turned a few heads on Twitter yesterday, January 9 when he claimed that an upcoming Tesla car might have the ability to fly. But is such an idea actually possible?

The SpaceX and Tesla CEO certainly hasn’t left us wanting with his somewhat outlandish schemes before. We’ve seen everything from a flamethrower to plans to start a Mars colony. Now it appears he’s going to add thrusters to a new version of the Tesla Roadster car, claiming it will give it the ability to fly.

“The new Roadster will actually do something like this,” Musk said in response to a tweet showing a picture of the flying DeLorean from Back to the Future. He added: “I’m not [joking]. Will use SpaceX cold gas thruster system with ultra high pressure air in a composite over-wrapped pressure vessel in place of the 2 rear seats.”

This isn’t the first time Musk has alluded to a flying Tesla. Back in June 2018, he said that an option package for the new Tesla Roadster would include “10 small rocket thrusters arranged seamlessly around the car.” These would apparently improve its acceleration, speed, and handling. “Maybe they will even allow a Tesla to fly…” he added.

So, is it really possible? To find out, I spoke to a couple of automotive engineers. And while they didn’t doubt Musk’s ability to surprise us, they were a little skeptical.

“Of course you can install that in a car and make some fancy things,” Dr. Markus Lienkamp from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) in Germany. “If he recharges the system with air pressure and some liquid fuel it might be able to work permanently.”

Musk had alluded to this in another tweet last year, saying you could use an electric pump to replenish the air in the pressure vessel. But Dr. Lienkamp was not convinced. “In my opinion [it is] just a showcase,” he said. “The system will be pretty heavy and costly.”

Dr. John Allport from the University of Huddersfield in the UK, meanwhile, was equally unsure. He cited the huge energy costs of the system as being a major problem, and noted that even if the thrusters did work as planned, you’d probably only be able to lift the car off the ground for a few seconds.

“Technically there’s nothing impossible about what he’s proposing,” he said. “But the amount of energy to just lift a car off the ground, where is all the energy going to come from?”

Another issue is that the air from the thrusters would escape quickly. Hovercraft overcome this problem by having a rubber cushion around their base, which contains the air pressure. Without such a skirt around the Tesla to seal the air in, getting it to hover for more than a few seconds is likely to be extremely difficult. “Once you get above a millimeter or so, your air loss is going to be so big that you soon run out of air,” said Dr. Allport.

What might be more feasible, however, is using the thrusters to improve the performance of the car. Many modern ships use thrusters to improve their turning capability, and a similar method could be employed here, firing a thruster to turn the Tesla into a corner and take it more tightly, or get a boost when accelerating.

But the weight of the system needed to do this might negate the reason for doing it in the first place. Sports car designers typically try and get as much weight out of the car as possible, so having heavy equipment to provide thrusts of air could end up being self-defeating – unless Musk has some tricks up his sleeve.

What’s more clear, however, is that the dreams of a true flying Tesla might be a little far-fetched. True, it does seem as if the car would be able to hover off the ground for a few seconds. But sustaining flight for anything longer than that might prove difficult.

“If anything, it would be a hover rather than flight,” said Dr. Allport. “It really just comes down to a case of how much energy is needed, and how much energy can you store physically within the volume of the car.”

Still, Musk has proved us wrong before. And let’s not get away from the fact that even a hovering car, if just for a few seconds, would be pretty incredible. You might not be taking to the skies any time soon, but a little hop off the ground would still be rather impressive. We’ll have to wait and see what Tesla has in store.

More Info: forbes.com

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