One company is testing a kind of hovering go kart. Another is working on sky taxis. A third has already reimagined the parking lot.
All over the world, startups and entrenched manufacturers alike are getting into the flying-car game, each with the goal of taking us where we want to go, faster than we ever thought possible. More than 50 years after The Jetsons left humans craving a speedy sky commute, there’s finally a real-life revolution happening in the realm of personal flight.
“This is about getting your time back,” says Carter Reum, an entrepreneur and one of the early investors in Kitty Hawk, a flying car company started by Google’s Larry Page.
One of the first things you notice about flying-car prototypes is that they don’t look much like cars at all. One model seems like a scaled up quadcopter drone, while another looks like an outrigger canoe with propellers; yet another is reminiscent of a dragonfly that mated with a Cessna. Geoff Spedding, a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California, is pleased by the design diversity. “It’s not exciting to look at yet another aircraft, or yet another helicopter, but all these are somewhere in between,” he says.
Last January, on a small airfield in Pendleton, Oregon, a company called A³ test-flew a vehicle known as Vahana. A³ is the Silicon Valley outpost of European aerospace giant Airbus, and has conducted more than 30 test flights to date, using a variety of Vahana designs. Project leader Zach Lovering told Quartz that the company hopes to have sky taxis operating within five years.
Spedding thinks that’s too soon. It’s not that the technical hurdles are so high, he says, although they are formidable. Rather, a combination of the regulatory environment and the public’s perception of risk makes it unlikely that flying cars will become ubiquitous anytime soon. He’s not alone: While many agree that flying cars are no longer an if but a when, no one seems to agree on when that when will be.
For ride-sharing company Uber, which is depending on outside developers to design its flying taxi of the future, the goal is five years. At an Uber Elevate conference in May, the company also announced grand plans for a series of “sky ports,” many of which would mostly be built on existing infrastructure like shopping malls and parking lots.
“We think the technology is here to do it now,” says Eric Allison, Uber’s head of aviation programs. “It doesn’t need a kind of big quantum leap in anything. It just needs a really clear system level thinking to put this together.”
The emergence of so many new vehicles is the result of several major technological advances in recent decades. Composite materials such as carbon fiber make for lighter, stronger aircraft than ever before. Better lithium battery technology allows vehicles to be powered electrically, rather than by gasoline. Computer algorithms are removing the difficulties of learning to fly, and, in some cases, leading to vehicles that will fly themselves.
Perhaps the biggest technological hurdle still to overcome is the battery. Most of the new flying-car prototypes are being designed to move using electric propulsion. While numerous test flights have been conducted with battery-powered engines, experts say that they still fall short of the power needed to fly a car for any meaningful distance.
Then there’s the matter of safety. To make flying cars a reality in the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is charged with overseeing the safety of all civilian flights, will have to implement rigorous new rules for where and how these vehicles can move through US airspace. Those efforts are currently underway, but the FAA says it’s in no hurry.
“We’re the safety regulators; we’re going to come at this from a safety perspective,” acting FAA administrator Dan Elwell told flying-car enthusiasts at the Uber Elevate conference in May. “When you put passengers on autonomous vehicles, as opposed to delivering a package, you introduce a much, much higher bar you need to get over.”
In the early days of aviation, crashes involving mass fatalities were relatively common, but that didn’t shut down the airline industry. Today things are different. The uproar over a small number of deaths from accidents involving self-driving cars reveals how risk-averse much of the general public can be when it comes to new technologies. “It’s inevitable [that there will be accidents], and the question is whether the nascent industry will be allowed to go through that standard phase or not,” says Spedding. “It could be that our concern for safety will strangle innovation.”
For now, none of this is stopping the momentum of those keen to make flying cars a reality. In July, at a lakeside facility outside Las Vegas, engineers and onlookers watched the test flight of a flying vehicle called the Flyer, built by Kitty Hawk. The small one-seater lifted off with a pilot inside and performed elegant aerial pirouettes in the scorching desert air. Among those present, there was a palpable feeling that something new, and potentially magnificent, was happening before our eyes.
“It’s incredibly ambitious,” Todd Reichert, Kitty Hawk’s lead engineer, said of humanity’s centuries-old dream of flying cars. “It will take time, and this is the first step.”