Man has been chasing the dream of a flying car for more than a century. In 1917, American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss unveiled his aluminium “Autoplane,” which could make short hops off the ground but never quite soared. In popular culture, the concept has sparked everything from Jules Verne’s The Master of the World to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” venture capitalist Peter Thiel famously complained about our failure to build highways in the sky. But at long last, science fiction might finally become fact.
And none too soon: by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to live in cities, with all the road congestion that entails. “Urban air mobility” could be the answer, as engineers are coming up with a range of airborne vehicles—air taxis, personal helicopters, passenger drones—many driverless, and each one wilder-looking than the last.
On the wings of technology
The dream is finally possible thanks to progress with state-of-the-art (and climate friendly) electric motors, automated navigation, distributed air-traffic management, electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) technology, and strong, lightweight materials such as aluminium alloys.
Yet the term “flying car” might be a misnomer, since very few of the new machines are actually made to be roadworthy—they are more like mini airplanes or passenger drones.
Bruno Chenal, Strategic Innovation Director at Constellium’s C-TEC technology center, explains, “The current designs are less about cars with wings but more about small vehicles that take off and land vertically for short commutes by air, without the need for a runway amidst the congested urban landscape.”
The race is on
In late 2018, Morgan Stanley Research released a report saying that autonomous flying cars could be common by 2040, with a market worth $1.5 trillion. With such lucrative potential, close to 20 companies around the world have entered the race to build a flying car. The movement is attracting startups, established car and airplane manufacturers, and tech companies such as Google.
A startup called AeroMobil was founded in Slovakia in 2010. The company is one of the few building a real flying car—the company refers to it as a “supercar with super powers.” It resembles a dragonfly with wings that unfold on demand, taking the car aloft in less than three minutes (owners will need a pilot’s license to fly it). Powered by a hybrid electric engine, it can drive up to 160 km/h and fly at 360 km/h for a range of 750 km. The price is also supercharged—at $1.2-$1.5 million, this is definitely a luxury product.
In 2018, the Workhorse Group, from Ohio, achieved the first manned flight of a hybrid eVTOL called the SureFly. Built of carbon fiber with aluminium landing skids, it is a two-seater drone with an internal combustion engine and electric motors powering eight props. The Surefly is not completely autonomous, but with two simple controls—one for speed, another like a joystick for direction—it is relatively easy to fly. In late 2019, Workhorse sold the technology to flight controls specialist Moog Inc.
The air taxi sector is quickly taking off, compelling both the FAA and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency to craft regulations for certification and safe operation of eVTOLs. The ride-hailing company Uber is also working with NASA on an air traffic management system for flying cabs.
In 2016, Uber released its plan for an on-demand aviation service called Uber Elevate. Rather than develop and manufacture its own VTOL aircraft, Uber is collaborating with around half a dozen aerospace partners, including the Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, Embraer, and Bell. Uber requires that its flying vehicles be electric-powered, quiet, and scalable, as it eventually needs to put tens of thousands of them into the sky.
The company’s launch markets are Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne, and it plans to be off the ground by 2023. Vehicles are slated to take off and land from “Skyports” made from repurposed parking garage decks, existing helipads, and the unused land around highway interchanges. Uber expects fares to start at around $120, and to drop to about one-sixth that price with time.
Automakers look to the sky
One of Uber’s manufacturing partners is Joby Aviation, a California-based company founded in 2009 that became the best-funded flying taxi startup when Toyota Motor Corp. made a $394 million investment, helping to bring the total raised to $720 million. Its vehicle is designed to carry four passengers and a pilot, and to fly at speeds of up to 320 km/h.
A couple of years ago, Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, put $30 million into Volocopter, a German air taxi startup whose two-seater eVOTL looks like a small helicopter with 18 rotors. It completed its first flight in a European city, Stuttgart, in October 2019.
That same month, Boeing and Porsche announced they were teaming up to build a fully electric, high-end, self-driving air taxi.
Aircraft manufacturers make their move
The two aerospace giants, Boeing and Airbus, are also in the game, working on a variety of flying car designs.
After acquiring Aurora Flight Sciences, Boeing conducted a test flight of an autonomous aerial car prototype in 2019. In June of that year, the company partnered with Google co-founder Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk startup, in a joint venture called Wisk. Together, they are working to launch a flying taxi service in New Zealand, using an autonomous two-seat eVTOL.
Meanwhile, Airbus developed Vahana, an electric, autonomous, single-person VTOL with tiltable wings. Vahana was a technical demonstrator project—an experiment with high-potential technology before its use in real-world applications. The vehicle started as a sketch on a napkin, took its first test flight in 2018, and performed more than 130 more test flights before being retired in November 2019.
Airbus and Italdesign are also collaborating on an autonomous ride-sharing system that can drive and fly, called Pop.Up. It is a fully electric, autonomous, modular system with a passenger capsule that connects to a four-wheeled ground module or a quadcopter for the sky. (Audi has been a partner in the project, too.)
A few more hurdles
Despite this flurry of activity, there are wrinkles to iron out before anyone will be able to hail a flying cab with a smartphone app. These include reducing overhead noise and air pollution, ensuring the safety of passengers and people on the ground, and building infrastructure for takeoffs and landings. Electric flight requires an enormous amount of energy, and battery technology is not quite there yet. Regulations adapted to the new technology must be put into place. And the costs of producing flying vehicles will have to come down so that flying cars are not just a niche toy for the super-rich, but a better, faster, safer way for everyone to get around.