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Flying cars roll a little closer to take off

The Terrafugia Transition is pictured shortly after a takeoff.

It’s 2012. The nation’s roads and bridges are in disrepair, commercial air travel is a lesson in masochism and domestic high-speed train service remains the stuff of railfans’ dreams.

It’s enough to make a frustrated traveler wonder: Fifty years after “The Jetsons” introduced the concept to American TV viewers, where are the flying cars we were promised?

The answer? Still a ways off but, just maybe, about to get a bit closer.

Consider the Skycar 100 LS and Skycar 200 LS, two new designs recently unveiled by Moller International in Davis, Calif. Utilizing vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) technology, they’re designed to take off like a helicopter, fly like a plane and be street-legal for short-distance driving.

Or the Transition, now in development by Terrafugia Inc., of Woburn, Mass. Known in the trade as a roadable aircraft, the sporty two-seater is designed to cruise at 93 knots (105 mph) and then, upon landing, fold up its wings and get 35 miles per gallon on the highway.

“The whole idea is to address the gap in travel between 100 and 400 miles,” said Cliff Allen, Terrafugia’s vice president of sales. “You could leave your home or office, drive to the nearest GA [General Aviation] airport, convert over to the aviation mode, fly to the airport nearest your destination and drive the last 10 or 15 miles.”

Although hardly the first attempts to build flying cars, the latest efforts represent responses to the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) codification of a category for recreational or sport pilots. Known as Light Sport Aviation (LSA), the category is designed to fill the gap between ultralights and larger, General Aviation aircraft.

The Skycars, for example, are smaller versions of Moller’s Skycar M400, a four-passenger model that’s been in development for decades. Although a predecessor-prototype completed a 40-second test flight in 2003, it still faces a long development path because it would be regulated according to GA standards, said general manager Bruce Calkins.

The 100 LS and 200 LS, on the other hand, would seat one and two, respectively and, therefore, be light enough (800 and 1,320 pounds) to fit into the LSA category. They’d also be faster and less expensive to produce.

“We were encouraged by the development of the LSA category to come up with smaller craft,” Calkins told msnbc.com. “It might shorten the timeframe” The company hopes to build its first prototypes within a year, he said.

The Transition is on an even faster track. According to Allen, the company is currently conducting drive-train testing, in which the power flows to the wheels for driving, and taxi testing, in which it flows to the propeller for flight operations.

“We expect to begin flight testing this spring and spend the summer completing FAA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration testing,” he told msnbc.com. The company hopes to deliver its first plane by the end of the year.

Optimistic expectations aside, however, challenges remain, says Dick Knapinski, spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association. On the regulatory front, for example, it remains to be seen how vehicles that traverse both roads and sky will be managed and monitored. “Do you get your license from the DMV or the FAA?”

As for marketability, the trick will be transitioning from an expensive toy to an accepted form of transportation. The price tag for the Transition is a lofty $279,000, which means you probably won’t be seeing one in your neighbor’s driveway any time soon.

Then again, the company has already taken almost 100 deposits of $10,000, so there’s clearly interest, although it may take a decade or more before anything approaching a mass market develops.

“I’m not sure society will say within the next 10 years, ‘Hey, let’s take the flying car instead of the Buick,’” said Knapinski. “But if you’d said 40 years ago that you’d someday have a powerful computer that you could carry around with you as a phone, people would’ve laughed at you.

“These things can happen.”

Do you think you'll see a flying car in a neighbor's driveway in your lifetime? Would you want one? Share your thoughts on Facebook.

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.