Flying cars: Coming to skies near you
There’s not much that can illustrate the divide between science fiction and reality better than the concept of a flying car. Though inventors have been working on vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) technology since the 1960s, it’s proved to be a particularly difficult challenge that has resulted in fairly sluggish progress – at least up until recently.
As big names enter the fray with the chance to trigger the next transportation revolution, we take a look at how soon flying cars could be swarming our skies and the impact they will have on life as we know it.
Commercial interest in the possibility of making flying cars a reality has surged thanks to advancements in software and processors, as well as major improvements to lithium-ion batteries, lightweight materials and electric motors.
Just last month, German start-up Lilium secured $90 million in funding to build a five-seat, all-electric flying car that will stay aloft for around an hour and reach speeds surpassing 180 mph. The jet is expected to be able to travel between Manhattan and JFK Airport in just 5 minutes – a journey that can take upwards of an hour on the road.
However, Lilium is not flying solo. Tests are also being carried out on prototypes by rival ventures such as Terrafugia, Ehang and Aeromobil, and big names like Google, Airbus and Uber are all plunging big money into joining the race too. Toyota, whose flying car – the “SkyDrive” – is even set to help light the Olympic flame at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics’ opening ceremony.
One of our first glimpses into the future has come courtesy of Dubai; which is looking to become the first country to offer a drone taxi service. The vehicle, developed by German firm Volocopter, took its maiden test run in a ceremony last month, arranged for the Crown Prince.
Before we can set off in our flying cars, engineers will first need to come up with solutions to a few pressing problems. Oddly enough, figuring out how to make a car fly isn’t actually one of them. Instead, one of the biggest challenges for manufacturers lies in developing technology that means the cars can fly themselves, therefore negating the need for passengers to go through the process of applying for a pilot’s license.
Another issue is that of landing. While take-off is fairly scripted, landing requires a much more detailed computer algorithm that can mimic the train of thought of a human pilot. Airbus believes that it could be one of the first companies to achieve this effectively, with its self-flying car, Vahana. At the point where the aircraft is at an altitude lower than 65 feet, lasers will scan the ground to determine whether there are objects larger than 12 inches in width to help it determine whether a landing spot is clear and safe. If the lasers happen to spot an obstruction, it will suggest an alternative landing zone.
So, what about safety? Statistically, commercial flying has been proven to be much safer than driving, but in this instance, it may not be the case. As we are yet to discover the safety measures that flying cars will be subject to, or what training pilots and passengers will have to undertake, it’s hard to say whether regulations will be more lenient in comparison to that of commercial aircraft.
Finally, and possibly the biggest impact for us on the ground, is the cost. Being stuck in traffic is one of the biggest pet peeves for most people, so how much would you pay to simply fly away? Currently, price tags are varying widely, with Dutch manufacturer, PAL-V, pricing their Liberty models upwards of the $400,000 range, and AeroMobil is expected to charge between €1.2-1.5 million, depending on final customer specifications. Whilst pin-pointing an exact price range isn’t yet possible, what is certain is that they won’t be cheap.
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One of the biggest questions surrounding flying cars is whether or not they can make the move from fantasy to reality. Many people have doubts that they’ll ever truly get off the ground, but the same was said back when the first whispers of self-driving cars were heard. It’s also hard to ignore the endless possibilities that this potential feat in engineering presents.
Adding a third dimension of travel into the mix will open up the availability of space for people to freely use, and hopes are that this will result in a reduction in traffic and even negate the need to build and maintain expensive road infrastructure. There’s also the opportunity to limit carbon emissions, as many prototypes introduced so far run on solar power and consume as much power as an electric car.
While it may be a considerable amount of time until we see flying cars made commercially available, it is likely that we’ll witness the showcasing of more than a few prototypes that will give us a glimpse into the future within the coming months and years. When the time does eventually come, will you be ready to take off into the skies?