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The future — our present — is not what we were promised.
Man has not been to Mars (Wired, 1997), food has not become obsolete (Ray Kurzweil, 2005), and robots have failed to make the entire country’s population independently wealthy (Time Magazine, 1966). The human foot has not morphed into one giant toe (Dr. Richard Lucas, 1911), dental transplants have not become common (Mechanix Illustrated, 1947), and no one has “a live-in ape to do the cleaning and gardening chores” (RAND Corporation, 1967).
We also don’t have flying cars (Popular Science, 1924; The Saturday Evening Post, 1942; Back to the Future, 1985; etc.). For a century, visionaries, futurists, and wild-eyed sci-fi writers predicted airborne sedans parked in the garage of every suburban commuter. But nearly two decades into the 21st century, that dream has not been realized, even as so many other markers of “the future” — video chats, robotic house cleaners, the Cubs winning the World Series — have become reality.
Over time, people began to ask “Where’s my flying car?” as shorthand for disappointment with reality failing to meet the most exciting projections of the future. Sure, we’ve got tiny supercomputers in our pockets and countertop speakers that can tell jokes, but our cars still drive on four wheels.
That may soon change. Really. The past decade has seen a flurry of innovations for what were once called “flying cars”; now they’re vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (VTOLS), electric VTOLS (eVTOLS), or air taxis. They’re built by scrappy startups and legacy aerospace firms. They’re coming out of Silicon Valley, Pittsburgh, Slovenia, and China. And no tech billionaire’s portfolio is complete without an investment in a vehicle that can drive in the sky.
If the most ambitious projections are accurate, somebody somewhere will be laughing at the suckers stuck in traffic below them within the next five years. But the most ambitious projections are rarely accurate. More likely, it’ll be decades before flying cars are anywhere close to common. And when they are, they won’t be what we’ve always imagined.
“The lay person usually thinks about a Jetsons-like world,” said Sanjiv Singh, a research professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. “Something that takes off from their driveway and then takes them somewhere else. You’re talking about a vehicle that operates in the presence of a densely populated area with lots of complexity.”
We’ll first see, Singh said, autonomous vehicles delivering cargo to remote areas or flying supplies to inaccessible disaster zones. “A place where roads have been destroyed due to a hurricane or earthquake,” he said. “You can’t get supplies there because power lines are down and roads are broken. Emergency operations of all kinds.”
Once flying cars make it to urban areas, they’ll look more like helicopters or human-sized drones. They’ll take off vertically from one helipad and land on another. In the early years, there will be a pilot, who will eventually be replaced by an autonomous flying system that’s more reliable and more profitable — you don’t have to fund a computer’s 401(k). And they won’t be kept in your garage.
“They will be one element of a multi-mode transportation experience,” said Robin Lineberger, Deloitte’s aerospace and defense leader. “They will not take you on the first and the last mile in your journey.”
In an autonomous “ground vehicle, if something bad were to happen, you could pull over. For an air vehicle, this is a significant issue.” Translation: you might drop out of the sky.
The type of flying car that will drive on the road, fly in the sky, and park in your garage will only be practical for the super-rich. That’s not because they’ll be expensive, though they will be, but because you’d need the ability to maintain it, store it, and land it, which takes more than a suburban driveway. “If I happen to be pretty wealthy and I want to own one of these, there’s nothing to say one endpoint of my journey couldn’t be my ranch,” Lineberger said. “But that’s not for the masses.”
This can all sound theoretical since virtually no one has even seen one of these in the air, but it’s not. The Slovakian firm AeroMobil is currently taking orders for its AeroMobil 4.0, with delivery scheduled for 2020. Uber has said its air taxi service will launch in 2023. Dubai is desperate to put an air taxi into operation, and Japan’s Cartivator is aiming for its SkyDrive to help light the torch for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
They may not be the flying cars science fiction promised, but they’re the closest we have, and they’re almost here.
Before going any further, let’s define some terms. When Popular Science wrote about “motor travel in the future” in 1924, it referred to the theoretical vehicles (promised to be available in just two short decades!) as “flying autos.” They would be half-car and half-plane, capable of driving through town and then, when on an open stretch of road, unfolding their wings and taking to the air.
In 1917, Glenn Curtiss, a major player in the U.S. aviation industry, built the first Curtiss Autoplane. It was a four-wheeled vehicle that looked like a Ford Model T with wings and propeller attached. While the Autoplane drove, it never flew.
In the few decades after that, ambitious businessmen made a handful of attempts to improve on the Curtiss design. In the mid-1940s, aircraft firm Convair rolled out two flying cars that actually flew. The vehicles looked like Chevys with a plane bolted to the roof. This design aesthetic persisted into the 1970s with the AVE Mizar, a literal mashup of a Cessna Skymaster and a Ford Pinto.
As the first iteration of flying cars failed to take off, some inventors turned away from cars that could fly and toward planes that could drive. The Bryan Autoplane, developed in the early 1950s, had foldable rather than detachable wings, and its landing gear served as tires when in car mode. The majority of flying cars now focus more on the flying than the car, with the helicopter-like VTOL emerging as the most dominant design.
So what do we call these vehicles? No one commonly knows what VTOL (pronounced “vee-toll”) means, and the varying designs of flying cars suggest different labels. Airbus calls the product of its Vahana project a “personal aerial vehicle.” The SkyDrive, from Toyota-backed Cartivator, is more of a passenger drone. The Flyer, from Google CEO Larry Page’s company Kitty Hawk, takes off from water, making it more of a flying boat. The Lilium Jet looks like a flying egg. The Transition from Massachusetts-based Terrafugia and the AeroMobil 4.0 out of Slovakia embrace the term “flying car” for a good reason — they’re meant to drive down the road and take to the sky.
“It’s like a supercar with superpowers,” said Jonathan Carrier, vice president of corporate development at AeroMobil. The latest iteration of the company’s flying car looks more like the mashups from decades ago. Carrier said the design choice amounts to a bet by the company on what will succeed first.
“We are actively developing a VTOL. However, we believe in the stepping stone approach to bringing a product to market that makes us profitable,” Carrier said. Because the AeroMobil 4.0 would rely on existing runways and provide a form of flying with which people are familiar — it takes off horizontally — the company thinks consumers will adapt more quickly.
Uber is betting on the VTOL. In 2017, the ride-sharing company announced Uber Air, an air taxi service that’s set to launch in just four years. The company has said that by 2023, it will “enable shared, multimodal air transportation between suburbs, cities, and ultimately within cities.” Dallas, Los Angeles, and a yet-to-be-named international market have been chosen for the launches. The company produced a slick video imagining the future of Uber Air that shows a woman commuting home from work by catching a VTOL on what the company calls a “vertiport.” She’s got a husband, kids, and a house in the suburbs. And she’s home just in time for dinner.
The world Uber envisions is one in which the daily commute is no longer a consideration for home buyers. Cities and suburbs have been reimagined. The reasonable radius around a city in which commuters are willing to live will have expanded so that commuting between Palo Alto and Monterey in California will take 15 minutes, not 90. “People can choose to live farther out if they have access to this middle-mile transport,” Lineberger said.
When the woman in Uber’s video gets in her VTOL, she pulls out her notebook. She’s being productive, and she’s smiling. “The quality of life in suburban and urban areas is going to go up,” Lineberger said of our flying-car future. Since they’re not driving, people will have more time that can “go into productivity and leisure.”
Before this becomes reality though, some technological innovations are needed. It’s not the technology to allow these vehicles to fly — that already exists — but the technology that makes them safe enough to allay the concerns of customers and regulators and affordable enough to ignite an industry.
The most important and perhaps biggest challenge is autonomy, said Scott Drennan, vice president of innovation for the helicopter manufacturer Bell. At CES 2019, the company unveiled its Nexus air taxi, which uses six tiling rotors to vertically propel itself off the ground. The Nexus seats five, including one pilot, but is designed for autonomous flight.
Imagine how terrified people will be of autonomous aircraft after the first one crashes. Or how suspicious they’ll be of a drone carrying six people over their backyard.
In 2017, Bell partnered with Uber, which wants someone else to build the vehicles for Uber Air. To make the service affordable, their air taxis must fly autonomously, Drennan said, removing the expense of paying a pilot. Autonomous air taxis would also, in theory, be safer than those piloted by humans, removing the possibility of human error that plays a role in 90 percent of noncommercial plane accidents, according to Aviation Safety magazine.
Singh, the Carnegie Mellon robotics research professor, spent the first years of his career working on self-driving cars or, as he calls them, “mobile robots big enough to be outdoors.” These were big, clunky machines better suited for moving through a strip mine than navigating the streets of Palo Alto. But the advancements made since Singh began working with autonomous vehicles in the 1980s provide a model for autonomous personal aircraft.
Self-driving cars were once purely theoretical, then they became real, then they started racking up thousands of hours on public streets. They haven’t yet lost their novelty — the attacks by knife-wielding residents of Chandler, Arizona, make that clear — but many can now see what was once considered absurd: Self-driving cars will soon fill the streets.
The parallel between autonomous cars and autonomous aircraft isn’t perfect. Driving on the roads requires a precision that flying doesn’t. You don’t have to stay within the lines in the sky. But, as Singh noted, in an autonomous ground vehicle, “if something bad were to happen, you could pull over. For an air vehicle, this is a significant issue.” Translation: You might drop out of the sky.
Along with autonomous flight systems, the flying cars of the future will require batteries that can get them up in the air and keep them there. That battery “does not exist,” Celina Mikolajczak, Uber’s director of engineering for energy storage systems, said at an international battery conference last year. Poached from Tesla, Mikolajczak spent years testing and refining batteries for electric cars.
One thing Mikolajczak didn’t worry much about at Tesla was the weight of batteries. But in the air, that matters. The key to building the right batteries for eVTOLS is increasing the energy density of batteries, which, even at their best, lag well behind jet fuel. According to one estimate, jet fuel produces 14 times more energy per pound than batteries. But that gap is narrowing. The current rate of innovation has the density of batteries improving by about five percent per year. Conservatively, that means the batteries needed to carry commuters from the suburbs to downtown will be here by mid-century.
Difficult as these technological hurdles appear, the human ones may be even more vexing. Major questions remain about how flying taxis would be allowed to operate in the sky. What kind of air traffic control system will be developed? How quickly will the FAA allow the move toward autonomy? Will each air taxi company build its own infrastructure, including charging stations and vertiports? Will people actually call them “vertiports”?
Then there’s the noise. “This is a physics problem,” said Singh. “It doesn’t matter which mode you use; they make a lot of noise.” If people want the convenience these vehicles will offer, they’ll have to accept the annoyance of commuters buzzing past their upper-story windows, he said.
That acceptance may not come easily. Self-driving cars, which have been on the road for years and have racked up millions of test miles, are still regarded with skepticism by many people, and drones are being shot out of the sky by suspicious neighbors. Imagine how terrified people will be of autonomous aircraft after the first one crashes. Or how suspicious they’ll be of a drone carrying six people over their backyard.
“We want to be a great neighbor as we fly these vehicles,” said Drennan. That’s not just a key for his company, Bell Helicopter, but for the entire industry. People may have been anticipating flying cars for decades, but will they be ready to step into them when the technology arrives?
Singh said that process will be helped by increased visibility. “We will start seeing people testing, and we will start seeing people establishing good processes,” he said. “This is the way we’re going to progress.” After waiting for more than 100 years for flying cars, “we’re not trying to rush anything.”
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