Flying cars: closer than you think

Improvements in drone technology and the entry of heavyweight companies into the industry is transforming the outlook for vehicles, both on the road and in the air

Home road Flying cars: closer than you think
Flying cars: closer than you think

Stuck in ground-level traffic gridlock, many of us will have looked to the skies and dreamt of using the space above to fly to our destination. Beyond the prototype or ultra-limited production run, however, anything approaching a flying car has eluded even the most talented of automobile and aircraft designers.

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One past project that highlighted the engineering difficulties was the AVE Mizar, a Californian dream from the early 1970s. The idea was to bolt the wing, tail and engine from a Cessna plane on to the top of a Ford Pinto, resulting in a car with a detachable set of flying components that could be left at the airport until needed. Although the Mizar did get off the ground, its inventor was killed when an attachment point from car to wing failed in flight. 

Flying cars: closer than you think 2

Shared technology
Now the quest for such vehicles is being given an extra push by the growth of megacities, ever-increasing traffic congestion and an acceleration in global car sales. Many flying car ideas are not only coming of age right now, but are also practical. They use tried and proven technology – the same wings as planes, the same wheels and tyres as cars – with no Jules Verne-style anti-gravity paint to consign them to the realm of fantasy.

Terrafugia was set up by MIT graduates in 2006 and claims to have produced the world’s first practical flying car. Although with its folding wing design, the company’s first model – the Transition – makes a more convincing-looking plane than car.

The one that seems like it will get into buyers’ hands first is the Liberty from Dutch flying car developer PAL-V. The three-wheel design has a wheel at the front that leans when the car turns on the road, making a safer and more graceful ground vehicle. This machine is an autogyro; it uses a large, windmilling rotor system on top to act as a wing, plus a driven propeller at the back to push it through the air. 

The machine has evolved significantly since the project started in 2001, but the design is now set and heading towards regulatory approval. “We expect certification in 2018,” says Bartjan Rietdijk, research and development manager, for what he says will be “the first ever commercially-available flying car”.

High ambition
However, it is drones that are changing this niche sector rapidly. The technology for pilotless aircraft, whether used to deliver missiles or parcels, is swiftly maturing, and pressure from the likes of Amazon is both driving research and forcing regulatory change to permit their use. 

Uber, the company that has already disrupted taxi services around the world, recently published a white paper called Fast Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation. It states: “Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground.”

And congestion is set to rise. 2016 was another record-breaking year for global car sales. A report from Australia’s Macquarie Bank says 88.1m cars and light commercial vehicles were sold worldwide in 2016, 4.8 per cent more than the previous year and the fastest rate of growth since 2013. That growth came not only from the developing world, but also the European Union where sales were up 7 per cent.

Uber’s white paper backs small electric vehicles that can take off and land vertically to provide affordable and safe on-demand aviation “between suburbs and cities and, ultimately, within cities”. It says such a system “will ultimately use autonomy technology to significantly reduce operator error”. So not all Uber flying cabs will end up being driven by Bruce Willis wannabees acting out fantasies sparked by 1997 movie The Fifth Element.

Cleared for takeoff
Airbus, the European aviation conglomerate, has also joined the fray. The builder of airliners, helicopters and spacecraft revealed last year that it was working on an autonomous flying taxi for a single occupant or freight that is scheduled for flight tests before the end of this year.

And in March Airbus, in partnership with Italdesign, the design and engineering company owned by Volkswagen, launched Pop.Up – a concept for a modular transport system consisting of a pod for passengers that combines two transport options. For the road, it sits on top of a chassis with four wheels. For flying, a set of four shrouded rotors attaches to the roof. 

“Right now the urban sky is quite under-utilised,” says Mathias Thomsen, general manager of Airbus Urban Air Mobility. 

Ignoring any similarities between the Pop.Up demountable flight module and the ill-fated Mizar’s all-too-easily-detachable flying structure, the concept could, with the backing of Airbus, go places. One important limiting technology is batteries, but their capacity and energy density are improving, on average, by about 8 per cent a year, so Airbus’s claim of a flying prototype in five to 10 years is plausible.

Both Uber and Airbus could be left in the dust by a combination of Dubai and the Chinese drone maker, Ehang, however. The Gulf state, which has already said it wants a quarter of all passenger trips made in driverless vehicles by 2030, is aiming to have Ehang-made autonomous, pilotless flying machines taking fare-paying passengers around the city by July.

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