GRR

Could these flying cars be the future of personal mobility?

14th May 2018
Lucy Johnston

George pilots his flying family car out of the apartment block and swerves away across the skies over town. He then switches to autopilot in order to wave off his son, daughter and wife, in individual jet-powered bubbles, through the floor of the vehicle, dropping them off at school and the shopping mall respectively. He then lands outside his office, before folding the car neatly into a briefcase and tucking it by his desk for the day.

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OK, perhaps the last part gave it away. This is not the current reality in the skies over Silicon Valley, but the opening credits of the 1962 cartoon series, The Jetsons. And the ability to fold your car into a briefcase may not be high on the innovation agenda, but the flying car part? Now that is, of course, a whole different story, and one that has been preoccupying the daydreams of engineers, entrepreneurs, tinkering inventors and the inspired masses for over 100 years.

Ever since the Curtiss Autoplane lifted off the road in 1917 (albeit very briefly), followed by Henry Ford pronouncing, in 1940, that “a combination airplane and motorcar is coming” after attempting to launch his Flivver family plane concept, and despite set-back after set-back and decades of trial and failure, this is one dream that has repeatedly refused to be shelved. Which also makes it one of the most curious, complex and compelling challenges still to be cracked in both engineering and commercial terms.

Bu it certainly now looks as if the era of the fully functioning and commercially viable flying car is finally dawning, with more investment being laid down than ever before. Even if these elusive craft are not yet visible in the skies. 

Back in March, at the Geneva Motor Show, the Dutch company PAL-V became the first company in the world to officially launch a true, production-ready flying car, the stylish PAL-V Liberty, comprising a three-wheel, Carver-style body with a gyroplane rotor on the roof. The prototype, the PAL-V One, was presented in FOS Future Lab at the 2017 Goodwood Festival of Speed where it attracted a huge amount of attention, and the company has already secured a number of orders for the Liberty. With a price tag starting at $400,000, this ‘aerocar’ is not going to check the mass accessibility box. And being a gyroplane, it requires horizontal motion in order to lift off, so neither is it going to solve congestion problems in city centres by simply lifting you out of a traffic jam. But it’s an inspiring first, already certified with EASA and the FAA, and complying with road safety regulations.

Taking a similar approach, the beautifully proportioned Aeromobil prototype from Slovakia offers a solution that is a mash-up of plane and car – this one dubbed a ‘roadable aircraft’ – comprising a sleek, streamlined body with wings that fold back when in drive mode. This concept requires a runway for take-off and landing, meaning no need to ever again battle your way through the terminal building – simply drive into your departure airport and drive out at your destination. However, this solution is still not the saviour of the city centre rush hour, which is one of the hot targets of another group of flying car projects that are well underway.

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This group take the VTOL approach, which is certainly looking like a convincingly viable solution across a range of traffic-busting scenarios. Standing for Vertical Take-Off and Landing (and pronounced vee-tol), development of this style of craft is where much of the latest engineering investment is being focused.

The most attention-grabbing concept to date is perhaps the DeLorean DR-7, not yet realised but, naturally, already highly anticipated – being built by DeLorean Aerospace, founded by the nephew of John DeLorean, designer of the distinctive steel DMC-12 of Back To The Future fame. As the much over-quoted phrase goes, where they’re going they “don’t need roads”, though the DR-7 looks to be a pretty sturdy contender for flight and drive, and with rotating propulsion fans for both forward motion and vertical lift-off, it will be a sure-fire winner in a traffic jam. 

One of the most advanced contenders in the current VTOL group of prototypes (and arguably the closest to the Jetsons’ flying car, which I am obviously still seeking), is Lilium, from Germany, which has recently successfully completed its initial flight tests. The company claims to enable you to travel five-times faster than a car to your destination, by introducing the world's first all-electric VTOL jet, positioned as ‘an on-demand autonomous air taxi for up to five people’. Although the battery range states 300km, and it promises to take you from London to Paris in one hour, the more compelling aspect is its potential to make numerous shorter hops around town – lifting off and alighting in designated parking bays or on rooftops.

This concept introduces a number of criteria that will be critical to the future success of a new generation of flying craft. First, the ‘all-electric’ promise which aims to make it lightweight, nimble, clean and quiet – the main difference to helicopters, and a necessity if a swarm of these craft are going to start shuttling people across cities.

Meanwhile ‘air taxi’ ticks the box of the most commercially viable application for mass uptake, expanding on the booming concept of ride-sharing, where a vehicle is hailed on-demand, rather than owned and operated by the passengers. 

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Uber is naturally getting in on the act with Uber Elevate, launching a hefty white paper in which they propose to tackle the half-a-million hours of productivity lost every single day by Silicon Valley commuters, through an on-demand aviation service through a phone app. 

And the third, and most revolutionary element – the ‘autonomous’ piloting. Because, ultimately, outside the core audience of advanced customers who confidently hold both a driver’s license and a pilot’s license (yes, you will need both in the era of the private flying car), who is going to really want the added responsibility of servicing both a car and plane every week in their garage? 

As Google co-founder, Larry Page’s latest project, Cora, another early challenger in the air taxi race, states, ‘you have got enough happening in your life without having to learn how to fly’. This early concept proposes to ‘combine self-flying software with expert human supervision’, also recognising the hurdle of trust that passengers will need to overcome when taking a driverless ride in the sky.

Autonomous piloting is, in fact, argued as a necessary step towards getting these craft approved for public flights – since research into autonomous driving has already shown that human error causes far more accidents than artificially intelligent systems. To quote an article from Scientific American, the ‘only way to bring flying cars to the masses is to leave the flying to the car’. And they certainly make a good point. Encountering bad drivers on the roads is a big enough risk, without the threat of bad fly-drivers overhead too.

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Early renders of the Uber autonomous VTOL craft, with its series of upward facing rotors, group it with another set of contenders, taking their lead from the sturdy formation of a quadcopter drone. Firstly Volocopter in Germany, a project backed by Intel, which recently completed a successful test flight in Dubai, and features a formation of sixteen rotors above a two-person passenger pod. While the EHang 184 prototype, being developed in China and backed by mobile giant Huawei, sticks to four rotors, this time positioned below the passenger capsule. The rotor format is suggested to not be as efficient or smooth when travelling horizontally, but with both concepts proposing similar on-demand shuttle services, offering the world’s busy city workers an escape from the crush on the ground, the distances travelled are not likely to be far. 

It must be noted that none of the above ride-sharing concepts have wheels, so strictly speaking none are ‘flying cars’ at all, steering well clear of road traffic at all times. However, rounding off this group of ride-sharing concepts is the most ambitious proposition of them all, PopUP – an impressive collaboration between Airbus and Italdesign – which was also presented in the 2017 FOS Future Lab. Featuring a two-person pod, which sits in a detachable 4-wheel skate can be picked up by a separate quadcopter unit, this on-demand autonomous system would analyse the most efficient route to your destination and drive-fly you there accordingly, on a designated network of routes.

This brings us to the final, and perhaps the two biggest, hurdles to adoption of these new intelligent flight systems – the regulation of airspace and the infrastructure required to manage, operate and support a completely new transportation service. It is ultimately these challenges, not the vehicles themselves, that will prevent mass urban flight becoming a reality for at least another decade. Pioneering organisations, such as Courts of the Future in Dubai, are being set up to bring global experts together to develop critical legislation, but it’s certainly a complex route ahead.

Concepts such as AeroMobil believe its runway-based aerocar solution will more quickly be given urban approval than the VTOL contenders, based on the current complexities involving regulation for drones over cities, but they are optimistic of the on-demand air taxi proposition in general. While the last word is with Uber Elevate who state, “the vision portrayed is ambitious, but we believe it is achievable in the coming decade if all the key actors in the VTOL ecosystem – regulators, vehicle designers, communities, cities, and network operators – collaborate effectively.”

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