The future just isn’t what it used to be. The economy, climate change, end-stage capitalism — they all inspire a kind of mild, ambient dread. But it wasn’t always this grim. In the 1950s, we dreamed big, of lunar colonies and pneumatic highways and the ultimate sci-fi fantasy, the flying car.
It turns out, this particular retro-future dream is finally being realized. In fact, several prototype flying car systems are already in the skies. The nascent flying car industry is moving fast, and many of the players are in stealth mode. But some well-known companies are competing with a squadron of startup companies to expand the technology worldwide.
The majority of companies developing these next-generation aircraft are focused, for now, on a ride-share air-taxi model. Logistically, it’s the easiest place to start. The idea is to provide short on-demand flights along predetermined routes — downtown Manhattan to JFK airport, for instance. Point-to-point air taxi service would allow for radically simplified air traffic control, and, in turn, automated flight systems that don’t require human pilots at all.
That means artificial intelligence is sure to play a key role in both the short-term and long-term development of flying car technology. In fact, the near-future prospects for the industry depend on the successful integration of several developing technologies, including artificial intelligence, ride sharing, advanced battery systems, and drone design.
There are still barriers — engineering, air traffic, infrastructure. But plenty of corporate decision makers have faith that the technology will come. According to recent estimates, at least 20 companies are currently in the flying car business, including automakers like Toyota and Porsche, aviation companies like Boeing and Airbus, and world-stomping uber-companies like, well, Uber. Morgan Stanley predicts that the marketplace for autonomous air taxis alone will reach $1.5 trillion by 2040.
Uber air taxis
Uber has been a pioneer in the nascent air taxi space. The company’s Elevate initiative is developing a fleet of VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) aircraft to shuttle impatient rideshare devotees around certain cities and suburbs. For us civilians, they’re the most likely near-future flying car we’re likely to ride in or see flying overhead, Jetsons-style.
The proposed air taxis, which look a bit like prop planes outfitted with vertical propellers, are fully electric and designed to fly fixed routes —from rooftop to rooftop in high density areas, or rooftop-to-ground for suburban commuter routes. Each air taxi can carry up to four passengers with a range of about 65 miles, according to Uber, although those figures might change depending on the final aircraft selections.
According to Uber’s design, the taxis will be designed to be run as fully automated systems — a driverless car in the sky — with a driver/pilot on hand if things get bumpy. Meanwhile, the company is buying up and developing small plots of land for the purposes of building a network of skyports to handle the possible traffic.
This isn’t just concept-stage noodling, either. Uber has already partnered with several different aircraft manufacturers and is planning to run demo flights this year in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne, Australia. If all goes well, the company hopes to start commercial operation in 2023.
One of the original prototypes on the flying car scene, the Terrafugia Transition takes an admirably straightforward approach to the auto/aircraft design dilemma. The Transition, which looks like a pickup truck and a small jet smashed together, is basically a street-legal car with a pair of wings that folds in and up. On the runway, the wings fold down and out for takeoff, then the road wheels retract during flights.
It’s a rather 007-style solution, but it works — Terrafugia has logged hundreds of flight hours in test runs since its first flight in 2012. The carbon fiber fuselage can transport one pilot and one passenger, plus a small amount of cargo. The most recent model features a hybrid gas-electric engine with a range of about 500 miles flying, 800 miles driving.
Uber has partnered with several different aircraft manufacturers and is planning to run demo flights this year in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Australia.
Prospective drivers need extensive flight training and a pilot’s license to actually take to the air. The Transition is ultimately designed for fast-forward aviation hobbyists at this point. However, Terrafugia was recently purchased by the Chinese company Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, which has pledged to expand operations and “make the flying car a reality.”
The hybrid approach has attracted other players as well. The European AeroMobil project would also combine street-legal auto design with collapsible wings. The newest AeroMobil model adds VTOL technology — helicopter rotor blades on the tips of the wings for vertical takeoff in urban environments. The company plans to ship its first orders to private buyers this year.
One of the major roadblocks (skyblocks?) to our 1950s retro-future vision is that we have no real infrastructure to support flying cars in urban or suburban areas. Even with VTOL capability, flying cars need space to take off and land — not to mention repairing, recharging, and/or refueling. Furthermore, we’re not even close to having regulations governing the use of such vehicles. Think of the trouble we have now with small plastic drones. Now imagine that with a sky full of carbon fiber passenger vehicles.
The Kitty Hawk vehicles make a clever end run around at least a few of these problems. Backed by Google cofounder Larry Page, the Kitty Hawk is more like a flying ATV designed for the extreme sports enthusiast — it looks like a tiny, propeller-outfitted speedboat. At 250 pounds, the Kitty Hawk Flyer is, in fact, classified as a recreational ultralight vehicle, meaning you wouldn’t need a pilot’s license to operate it.
The catch? There are several. As of now, the Kitty Hawk is only designed to fly over water — this makes any rookie pilot oopsies more survivable. It’s a single-seater too, and maximum altitude tops out at around 10 feet above the water’s surface. Finally, the Flyer is still in prototype phase, so if you want to check it out, you’ll need to get a job with Kitty Hawk. The good news is they’re hiring.
Despite these various developments, real-world demonstrations of future flying cars are hard to come by. The most ambitious initiatives are either in the design stages or being kept under wraps. Click around and you can catch a glimpse of some actual test flight videos — like Airbus’ Project Vahana — but mostly we have to make do with breathless promises and concept art.
So it was big news last summer when German startup Lilium Aviation conducted a test flight of its much anticipated Lilium Jet, a fully electric five-seat aircraft with tilt-rotors — which allow for traditional fixed-wing flight as well as vertical takeoff and landing. Heavy-duty military aircraft have previously employed tilt-rotor design, in which helicopter-style horizontal rotors gradually pivot to front-facing airplane position. But the Lilium Jet is a much more civilian-friendly solution — low-noise, low-pollution, and all-electric. The current prototype model uses 36 battery-powered thrust engines positioned in both the forward and rear-position wings.
Last summer’s test flight was only a partial run designed to test vertical takeoff, the most difficult maneuver for the five-seat model. But previous test flights with smaller, two-seat prototypes have provided sufficient proof-of-concept for the overall design. According the company, the Lilium Jet will have ultimately an effective range of 185 miles and a top speed of 190 mph.
“This is the next step in mobility as we perceive it,” says Lilium co-founder Matthias Meiner in the official demonstration video.
None of this is quite how we envisioned things in the 1950s — we won’t be pulling out of our driveways and into the sky any time soon. But with these kinds of numbers and names in play, it’s clear that flying cars are finally getting off the ground.