100-plus years of automotive history says it’s impossible, but Musk has made a habit of proving people wrong

Elon Musk has made another bold claim regarding the Tesla Roadster’s optional SpaceX package. If the package’s “cold-air thrusters” aren’t ambitious enough, Musk indicated that these thrusters would allow the Roadster to fly. At first, he qualified the term “fly” as the ability to hover or make hops over stretched distances. Now, he’s saying that the Roadster can actually do something akin to the hovering DeLorean from Back to the Future. Perhaps it’s best to assume that Musk is being a little cheeky with this latest boast, but for what it’s worth, he’s also followed through on past claims that were deemed ridiculous at the time. Is this a case of Musk finally biting off more than he can chew, or is he up to something yet again? Either way, the idea of a flying Tesla Roadster is so absurd that it’s actually awesome. Here’s to hoping that there’s more to Tesla’s SpaceX package than what we’ve been let on.

I’m an optimist by nature, a glass-half-full kind of guy who sees hope and possibilities when others see doom and gloom. I’m the type of person who believes that, even if history says otherwise, we will one day see flying cars. It’s just a matter of when that’s going to be. History, after all, is meant to be rewritten. That’s how the world works. That’s how it will continue to work.

I understand the skepticism, though. It’s one thing to develop a cold-air system for spaceflight — something SpaceX has done — it’s another thing to develop a system that works, not in the vacuum of space as its initial intention, but in the dense atmosphere of this planet. As forward-thinking as Musk and his engineers are, it is hard to imagine that the technology that SpaceX has can work in a different environment with a few tweaks here and a few adjustments there.

But there is a proper distinction on what our expectations are of a flying car as opposed to what Musk thinks the Roadster can eventually do. For most of us, a flying car is a flying car. It can lift off the ground and take us to long-distance destinations like what a plane can do. This is important because Musk didn’t exactly say that the Roadster will be able to do the same thing. His position is based on the premise that, with a more sophisticated version of the SpaceX’s cold-air propulsion system, the Roadster could leave the ground and stay off the ground for some time.

Increased costs and countless hours of engineering notwithstanding, is that impossible? I’m no rocket scientist, nor will I ever be one, so I can’t answer that question with full certainty.

What I do know is that for Tesla to have any shot at getting the Roadster to fly or hover, it’s going to need to develop a far more sophisticated version of its cold-air propulsion system, one that would at least require far more amounts of available energy just to lift the vehicle off the ground.

Musk has previously hinted that an electric pump would be able to replenish compressed air inside a pressure vessel — he claims that this pressure vessel will occupy the space traditionally allocated for the two rear seats — but that electric pump is going to require significant amounts of power as well. That’s not even mentioning the Roadster requiring some form of compressed inert gas that also has to be stored somewhere in the vehicle. And unless Musk only wants the Roadster to go vertically, he’s going to have to develop a guidance system for when the Roadster is in flight. Even if Musk and Tesla somehow check all these boxes, there are also safety aspects that they need to address, especially if the car is storing pressurized storage tanks that could spell trouble for the Roadster’s occupants if something unforeseen happens.

Elon Musk's Latest Claim About the Tesla Roadster is As Absurd as it is Potentially Awesome
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I wouldn’t it put it past Musk and his engineers to create a system that can work. He has a track record of proving people wrong, and as I have mentioned in the past, it’s hard to bet against this man when you know what he’s capable of.

I’m optimistic that if there was someone who can pull off a flying car, it’s going to be Musk and his team of scientists, engineers, developers, and everybody else.

A lot of people who are a lot smarter than me have posited on how Tesla can pull this off. Wired contributor Rhett Allain believes that, after a few calculations that flew (pun completely intended) over my head, a properly designed system of air thrusters could theoretically lift the Tesla Roadster off the ground for a sustained period. “It doesn’t matter if you use some type of jet engine or a rotor, the physics is mostly the same,” Allain said, referring to how helicopters and vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) planes can fly. “To hover, the flying car will take air from above the car and ‘throw’ it down. Since air has mass, a change in velocity of this air would mean it has a change in momentum.”

Elon Musk's Latest Claim About the Tesla Roadster is As Absurd as it is Potentially Awesome
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Diving further into the physics element of the issue, Allain adds: “Momentum is the product of mass and velocity. According to the momentum principle, this change in momentum requires a force and it is this force that counteracts the gravitational force to make the car fly.”

For Tesla to generate the volume of air it needs to lift the Roadster’s weight off the ground, it would need the equivalent of a huge fan to do it. But doing so would create space and weight issues. Another option, according to Allain, would be to use smaller rotors with lower mass air that moves at a faster speed. To illustrate this example, Allain assumes that the Roadster weighs as much as the Tesla Model 3. Fair assumption, I suppose. The second one is the size of the fan, specifically its diameter. Allan arrives at one with a diameter of 20 inches and an area of 0.81 square meters. Using a formula that looks about as alien to me as Egyptian hieroglyphics, Allain arrives at two important figures: an airspeed of 190 meters per second and total energy of 1.7 megawatts.

Using the Model 3’s 75 kWh battery — 0.075 megawatts, in the interest of consistency — as a touchpoint, Allain believes that with the aforementioned setup, the Roadster can fly or hover for 0.044 hours, or the equivalent of 2.64 minutes.

Since the Roadster will pack a 200 kWh battery, the theory goes that it could stay in the air 267 percent longer than the 75-kWh Model 3, or the equivalent of seven minutes, assuming the battery is fully charged and no energy is spent on other things.

Elon Musk's Latest Claim About the Tesla Roadster is As Absurd as it is Potentially Awesome
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Model Price before savings Price after savings
Base Standard Range $US35,400 $US27,350
Standard Range Plus $US39,900 $US31,815
Long Range $US49,900 $US41,850
Performance $US59,900 $US51,851

I’m not going to put it past Tesla to develop a system that can work. We’re at a point where technological advancements are happening at such a rapid pace that yesterday’s breakthrough will be tomorrow’s outdated tech. Ok, so there’s a lot of hyperbole in that, but the point is, even if you are skeptical that Tesla can make the Roadster fly, or even hover, for an extended time, there are enough ways, methods, and egos involved for the company to actually make something like it work, even if it doesn’t work on a bigger and far more grandiose scale.

See, I think it’s possible. I think with the proper studies, tests, resources, and know-how, Tesla can build a car that can hover or fly for a set time. Having said that, I also know that just because I think it’s possible, that doesn’t mean I think it’s going to have any significant impact on the Roadster beyond acting as a novelty feature for those who are rich enough to afford it. Ultimately, that’s what I think this will boil down to.

The SpaceX options package isn’t for everyone. It’s certainly not for those who will have a hard enough time paying for the Roadster on its own.

It’s for people who have enough money to burn that they can buy the SpaceX options package and see how far they can go if Tesla ends up developing a tech that allows the Roadster to fly.

Elon Musk's Latest Claim About the Tesla Roadster is As Absurd as it is Potentially Awesome
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But as far as the tech being scalable for mass production? That’s where I draw the line. As much as I want to see it happen, there are far too many items to work out — noise, maintenance, safety, regulations — before we can even cross that bridge.

Tesla Roadster 2.0 Performance
0-to-60 mph 1.9 seconds
0-to-100 mph 4.2 seconds
Quarter mile 8.9 seconds
Top speed 250+ mph
Range per charge 620 miles
Battery pack 200 kWh
Electric motors 3 (one in front, two in rear)
Torque 10,000 Nm

Further reading

Elon Musk Will Hide the Tesla Roadster's Rocket Booster in an Odd but Innovative Place
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Elon Musk Will Hide the Tesla Roadster’s Rocket Booster in an Odd but Innovative Place

Elon Musk's Latest Claim About the Tesla Roadster is As Absurd as it is Potentially Awesome
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Read our full review on the 2020 Tesla Roadster.

Falcon Heavy Launch Sends Tesla Roadster And Starman Into The Great Beyond, But Now What?
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Falcon Heavy Launch Sends Tesla Roadster And Starman Into The Great Beyond, But Now What?

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