Big money is being thrown at getting flying cars out of the sci-fi comics and into our skies. But, despite the hype, are they close enough to reality that we should dust off our credit cards?
Flying cars, air taxis or passenger drones, which we’ll conveniently lump together as ‘flying cars’, seem like something plucked from the pages of pulp science fiction, and they all promise to transport people in the air from A to B at the push of the button. That’s a hefty promise, but since transport heavyweights like Boeing, Airbus, Toyota and Uber have started throwing megabucks at their development, perhaps it’s time to take them seriously.
But before you rush out with a credit card clutched in your eager fist, you need to be sure of how the current technology stacks up to the cold splash of a reality check and how close the leaders are to delivering on the promise.
We’re not going to go down the rabbit hole of the intricate science of battery or rotor technology or going to get caught up in the multiple and often heated debates raging about regulation, airspace navigation, safety and environmental issues. Suffice to say, there are some smart people hard at work on the technology barriers – regulation may take a little longer to catch up.
The craft in the spotlight here all have unique designs and are at different stages of development, yet they are likely to be on a showroom floor before long. The list, in no particular order, includes only those that I reckon are front runners for reasons like manned test flights, powerful partnerships or just plain practicality.
If the label says ‘Airbus’ you know it’s going to be packaged with lashings of automation and backed by deep pockets. Airbus launched its single passenger Vahana joint-venture two years ago, and a full-scale version of the electric, autonomous VTOL aircraft completed its first test flight in February this year, which lasted nearly a minute and reached an altitude of five metres. With a successful first vertical takeoff and landing, the team is now planning tests to transition the tilt-rotor craft from vertical to horizontal flight. No information is available about manned flights yet, so it may be a bit soon to put this one on your wish list.
Another Airbus linked initiative, Pop.Up Next was revealed at the Geneva Motor Show in February and consists of a multi-modal system that enables third dimension transportation by cashing in on the know-how of ground and airspace industry leaders. Italdesign is providing the concepts, and Airbus will supply the flying bits made up of a simple but very workable quadcopter design pioneered by them.
The car module from Audi is a platform similar to their current electric car concept. The result is a modular mix of a drivable ‘wheels and engine’ piece, an aviating quadcopter-like module and a two-seater passenger capsule. With a very practical 130 km range and a 15-minute charging time, the Pop.Up Next will offer the ‘vorsprung’ that suggests you need to start saving for this one right now.
Eight rotors slicing away just above ankle height must cause a complication to boarding and, more importantly, evacuation of the Ehang 184. This little egg looks like it’s upside down, because the passenger space is up top and the rotors buzz below, ready to cut unwary passengers off below the knees.
Ehang has been a bit secretive since the 184 flying taxi first appeared on the scene at CES in 2016, but after four years of development, it finally has its FAA Experimental Airworthiness Certificate. They broke their silence briefly last month to reveal video footage of passenger flights. The videos show the 184 being put through its paces in a typhoon, navigating heavy fog, climbing to 300 m and completing an 8.8 km ‘long-range’ test flight. Despite an earlier announcement, it’s unconfirmed whether the 184 will also be tested in Dubai, but a two-passenger model is known to be in the testing phase. For now, though, the ability to carry a single legless passenger less than 15 km detracts from its appeal as a flying car, irrespective of its high-wind or fog capability.
Lilium VTOL Jet
German-based Lilium Aviation completed its first unmanned test flights of a two-seater electric VTOL jet in early 2017, and promptly announced a larger five-seat production version with a range of over 300 km and a top speed of 300 km/h. These specs were good enough to help it raise US$90 million in fresh funding to forge ahead, and it’s targeting manned flights within the next year. The initial test flights were done via remote control, so no indication of autonomy is available yet, but I think that this craft will be exactly what it says on the box – an electric VTOL jet. It has all the attributes of a flying car and impressive performance targets, so well-heeled aviators should soon see this one at the top of their shopping lists.
The Workhorse SureFly has eight rotors on four folding arms extending above the passenger cabin, and it looks like a whopping big quadcopter drone, with simple ‘a couple of buttons and a joystick’ controls. The SureFly was revealed at the Paris Air Show last June, and quickly got an FAA Experimental Airworthiness Ticket. It’s a hybrid-electric craft that uses the same engines as the BMW i3 and can carry two people at 140 km/h – so it’s fast as well. It has an hour’s endurance and there’s a backup battery that gives an extra five minutes flight time to get you safely back to terra firma.
Workhorse, which has a partnership with shipping giant UPS, says the SureFly is intended for medical and agricultural uses as well as private consumers. It’s not purely electric but it won its FAA flight certification in January, so is available to buy right now for around R2.5 million.
No less than 18 rotors in an oversized circle sit above the heads of the Volocopter’s two passengers. Although it looks like rotor overkill, there’s safety through redundancy, and the electric Volocopter has attract the most attention of the flying car concepts doing the rounds. Since emerging in 2013, it has already completed manned test flights in Germany, and, at CES in Las Vegas, performed an onstage test flight for a live audience. It has also done unmanned flights over Dubai where it’s being assessed over the next five years as part of a service called the Autonomous Air Taxi.
The Volocopter is fully autonomous but also has a joystick for control-freak passengers to ‘drive’ the current version for 30 minutes at a top speed of 100 km/h. It only has a maximum range of 50 km and I don’t have estimates for how long recharging takes, but it’s not likely to be a ten-minute affair. For now, the Volocopter is still a concept that faces the same issues as most of its all-electric competitors.
Autonomous Passenger Drone
Announced last September, the Passenger Drone looks a bit like a two-seat tandem gyrocopter but seems further along in development than most contenders. It’s built from carbon fibre composites, uses 16 electric rotors to get airborne and can also be flown manually with a joystick. To accompany the announcement, its makers released videos which show the craft already completing manned test flights, where it was flown autonomously, joystick operated, and by remote control.
The makers claim a top speed of 70 km/h, a 20-minute endurance and best of all, a 25-minute charge time which makes this currently one of the more practical flying cars. No prices have been announced as yet, but have your wallet ready for this one.
Joby is the brainchild of JoeBen Bevirt, who made his fortune from selling, would you believe, those flexi-arm Gorilla Pod camera tripods. Now, with US$100 million in investments from Toyota, JetBlue and Intel, Joby Aviation is preparing a VTOL tilt-rotor that can carry four passengers and a pilot for 240 km. This craft is probably the furthest from a pure flying car concept, as it has 12 rotors situated on long outriggers, making it look more like a fixed-wing multi-engine plane than anything else, and making parking a bit of a problem. Furthermore, with Airbus also in the tilt-rotor space with a more practical and autonomous flying car, I reckon that US$100 million is not going to go very far towards creating a marketable and competitive craft.
Bell is big enough to be included in this list, but in its promo picture, the Airtaxi looks more like a Star Trek shuttlecraft than a flying car. There’s no obvious propulsion system and Bell contend that they’re keeping that aspect of the Airtaxi secret for now – maybe it’s a warp drive. What Bell has confirmed is that the craft will carry four people and have both autonomous and piloted versions, and that initial power will be hybrid-electric. The Bell Airtaxi is still clearly very much a concept, so don’t expect to see one on your neighbour’s driveway very soon.
If you’re keen to dial an Uber flying car, don’t hold your breath. Uber first revealed plans for its flying taxi service in a multi-page white paper in 2016, which lays out vague plans to use sets of small electric rotors to power a craft with two or four seats. According to Uber, this “would take off vertically but then convert to some sort of horizontal flight mode with tilting wings or rotors, saving on energy as it travels along fixed routes between ‘Skyports’.” So, for now, the UberAir autonomous air taxi is nothing more than a white paper and a cool CGI video. Clearly, they’re a bit nebulous about the whole concept and their partnership with NASA is not going to help much, as NASA is not known for doing anything quickly. This is probably why Uber recently also announced a partnership with Bell to work on the Airtaxi project.
So, what’s the pay-off?
This decade is witnessing a mind-boggling dash for the flying cars finish line from many contenders, ranging from transportation giants to start-ups with little more than an idea and an iPad. Counted amongst the many are Paul DeLorean, nephew of THAT DeLorean, who’s intending to reprise his uncle’s flying car from the Back to the Future movies, and we can’t exclude the batty boys with an airborne bathtub whose antics infect YouTube.
A VTOL gold rush is happening right now and there’s little doubt that all the outlay and effort will churn out some striking new technologies. That said, we do know a few things about technology and change. Firstly, everything in aviation takes longer than we expect, and there will be unintended consequences. Also, all this emerging technology will be subject to government regulation. Finally, everything costs more than we would like. But, with so much money and so many big players and smart startups all chasing this dream, it’s quite likely that a flying car will decorate your driveway – will it still be a driveway? – in the near future.