In recent months, many articles have been written about autonomous cars including here on Motoring Weekly, yet there are other transport modes that have been in development far longer and may well be about to hit the high end of the market – literally! A few months ago I wrote about Alauda, a Sydney based startup who plan to create a flying car race series to further the development of the concept – like Formula E for electric cars. As an aside, maybe this is a route that autonomous vehicles should take as well.
However, the idea of a flying car has been with us for decades if not longer. Henry Ford was supposed to have claimed in 1940 that we would see them in the future – and with the aeronautic and automobile industries sharing technology and materials, that wasn’t really a big leap forward. Movie buffs will remember Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and who could forget the evil Francisco Scaramanga battling James Bond in Thailand with his AMC Matador and the jet powered wing kit! In reality, the designs are more traditional aircraft with folding wings with normal sized wheels and engines, or simply mini or micro aircraft.
Terrafugia have been working for over ten years to bring personal transportation to the sky in what they call a flying car. The company was founded in Massachusetts by a group of MIT graduates and their first product is called the Transition®. This has foldable wings with two seats and is described as a “roadable aircraft”. Clearly two licences would be needed to use one of these – a drivers and a pilots. It is very much a “hybrid” vehicle in that it can cope with two different types of transportation. Their future is to combine new technologies with old in the TF-X®, an all-electric vehicle. This video shows what the company is developing:
Two German companies are also working to bring a flying car to the market. e-volo has developed the Volocopter®, an oversized drone that could be used like a personal helicopter with several smaller rotors on fixed stalks. Have a look at their web site to see the aircraft.
Lilium is the other German company and they have recently been testing their prototype craft and they see it working for ride-sharing services. Uber are apparently looking at this idea – that shouldn’t be news to anyone because they have many fingers in many pies, hoping one will give them the competitive edge.
As you could imagine, the traditional aircraft manufacturers are also looking at this sector of the market. They would have the clout and resources to create a small craft and I did read a report that Airbus has an ongoing project with Giugiaro, the designers of many supercars to come up with a suitable design concept. Giugiaro is now part of the VW Group, so they would have access to all the bits that Airbus doesn’t. Giorgetto Giugario also designed the famous DeLorean DMC-12 used in the Back to the Future film series for time travel!
Every report suggests that the first craft will be guided by humans before autonomous technologies take over – based on recent events, that is likely to be some way off in the future. Clearly these first machines will be targeting the very wealthy people who already have a pilots licence and I don’t see these machines ever getting down the economic scale to the masses. Humans (and technology) have a hard time keeping vehicles on clearly defined pathways and I think allowing vast fleets of sci-fi like craft to be flying around is destined for a disaster.
There are three things that will prevent these vehicles from really becoming commonplace. The first is logistics, cities will need to be redeveloped to allow a ride-sharing usage and areas for them to use their vertical take-off and landing functions will need to be fenced off. I could imagine transport services providing taxi-like journeys between towns though. Cities have been developed around land based vehicles for over 1,000 years and now with large high rise apartment blocks being built, the change would be a colossal task.
The second issue will be Governments. Legislation for safety and controlled usage would make these craft unavailable for many people. Revenue from licences and taxes would make them too expensive and there would be a huge amount of lobbying from those that feel they are being left behind, penalising the early adopters. It would take a long time for the costs and technology to reach a price point suitable for many users.
The third issue I have already commented on above – it is us, the humans on the planet. I just don’t think we are collectively ready for the responsibility! Fuel range anxiety will get to many people – even the concept of running out of fuel is much more dangerous. The chances of a serious accident rises when you have altitude, spinning blades and a lot of craft in close proximity. Note that for the manufacturers (both automotive and aeronautic), the future is idyllic and utopian – there is never a mention of what happens in the real world.
Remember, it only takes one idiot to change the world!