The L train is a no-go, you missed your connecting bus, and your Uber is now stuck in traffic somewhere in the middle of Manhattan while you’re trapped and becoming progressively late for work, again. As you look at the sea of traffic stretched out in front of you, your mind wanders back to cheery cartoon versions of what the future would look like, from “The Jetsons’” mid-20th-century-meets-the-future to a more recent robot-populated “Futurama.” What their future daily routines had that our present has not: flying cars. And we could really use latter’s hover cars or the former’s flying family vehicles right about now.
Even In 1923, scientists thought flying cars would solve NYC’s traffic snarls by 1973. In the early years of the automobile’s heyday, when cars were actually getting bigger rather than more compact, it was predicted that by 1973, flying “helicars” would be buzzing travelers around New York City and the snarled traffic on the city’s roads would be a thing of the past.
Science fiction writer and inventor Hugo Gernsback saw the future of major traffic congestion even in the 1920s, making the argument that tomorrow’s automobiles needed the option to fly above the city. Gernsback felt the only real solution to New York’s traffic problem was the helicar, which he predicted would be in regular use by 1973.
Gernsback predicted that the helicar would be “particularly useful for suburbanites to fly to and from work, and for pleasure.” He suggested the helicar have two wheels instead of four: “A gyroscope keeps the car in an upright position at all times, and makes riding on two wheels perfectly safe.”
So where are the flying cars?
According to Geek.com, you can order one. Claiming to be the first “real” flying car, Dutch manufacturer PAL-V began selling its Liberty Pioneer and Liberty Sport flying cars–or driving planes, depending on how you look at it–last year after successful test programs in 2009 and 2012 led the company to turn what had been concept vehicles into commercial products. If you’ve got the $25,000 non-refundable deposit to spare, you can be the proud pre-orderer of what’s actually a gyroplane, which is, according to the company, much safer and easier to fly than a helicopter or small fixed-wing plane–and validates Hugo Gernsback’s gyrocar suggestion, if only a few decades behind schedule.
Can it get us out of a traffic jam? Not just yet. When the vehicle is in flying mode, it has to comply with FAA regs, which means no lifting off on the highway. And you need a flying license. The Dual Mode Sports Vehicle (DMSV) is expected to retail for $399,000–$599,999. In addition to the flying bit, you can also drive it, of course, and fill up the tank at any gas station. The company hopes to be making deliveries of the first pre-ordered road- and air-certified models in 2019.
As far as safety, according to the vehicle’s manufacturer, “Technology is moving more and more towards avoiding collisions by overruling the pilot’s choices in case of collision risk. Indeed, it is our belief that not only today but also in the future you will be safer in the air than on the road.”
So once we’ve got the flying cars ready to go, what’s going to happen? There have of course, been TED Talks on the topic. Aviation entrepreneur Rodin Lyasoff explains his vision for a new golden age of aviation, this one made up of small, autonomous air taxis that will let uss bypass traffic gridlock and completely upend the way we currently get around locally. "In the past century, flight connected our planet. In the next, it will reconnect our local communities."
Lyasoff’s “vertiports” have autonomous (self-piloted) electric air taxis shuttling travelers between towns and cities without the noise and expense of helicopters. How realistic is this vision of the future? The answer, according to Lysasoff, is an Airbus-designed vehicle named Vahana, and it already exists. And there are over 20 companies around the world working on similar vehicles. Lysaff sees us as incorporating this new level of travel into our regular ride-sharing apps within the next five years.
The race for firsts is definitely on. Among those companies is one we associate with the most traditional of luxury vehicles, Rolls-Royce, Dezeen reports. The British aerospace company is working on a personal electric flying vehicle that it hopes will be on the market in the early 2020s. Their new concept was revealed recently at the Farnborough International Airshow, in Great Britain, partly as an attempt to rustle up strategic partners for its new vertical take-off and landing (EVTOL) machine. EVTOLs generally require very little space on the ground for take offs and landings, and can be relied on to travel anywhere quickly without the problem of traffic snarls that plague the old fashioned ground car model.
The company claims to have already perfected the take-off and landing tech to make the concept vehicle work, but is developing a more fuel efficient system. Rolls-Royce electrical director Rob Watson said, "Electrification is an exciting and inescapable trend across industrial technology markets and while the move to more electric propulsion will be gradual for us, it will ultimately be a revolution."
The company’s current concept is a six-propeller vehicle that holds as many as five passengers and can go up to 250 miles an hour using a gas turbine to generate electric power. The company has said the emerging electric VTOL market, which it described as the "third generation of aviation," is a response to road traffic congestion in big cities.
At the same air show that debuted the Rolls-Royce vehicle, aeronautical company Volerian presented its new system, for which it makes claims of unprecedented safety, quietness, and economy, making it one of a revolutionary new breed of flying vehicles. According to Designboom, Volerian’s propulsion system is much quieter and safer than forms of personal aviation that use propellers or conventional fans, and even better models are being developed that literally can’t “fall out of the sky.”
Many of these companies point toward the fact that Uber is currently developing concepts it can integrate into its ridesharing network and that, as previously mentioned, Airbus is testing an autonomous version. In 2017 Airbus helicopters announced that it had completed its first full-scale testing on the propulsion system of the company’s CityAirbus demonstrator. The vehicle in question is a a multi-passenger, self-piloted electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicle made for urban air mobility–in essence, a flying taxi. 6sqft has reported on both the Airbus product and Uber’s partnership with NASA to develop software to operate their “flying Ubers” for uberAIR by 2023.
Uber’s “flying car” will be electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOL). The fully electric eVOTL will have four small rotors in place of a single large one. This will make the eVOTLs much quieter and more efficient than helicopters. It also ensures safe landings because if one rotor fails, the others will continue to operate. The raised propeller design is also safer for passengers boarding and disembarking as the passengers don’t need to duck to avoid being hit.
And, since flying Ubers need somewhere to take off and land, at their recent annual Elevate Summit conference in Los Angeles, the company revealed the top six Skyport conceptual designs that are just as futuristic as the flying taxi concept itself.
Of course, tech titans are already working on their EVTOL collections–from companies that are developing this soon-to-be-ubiquitous technology. The Verge tells us that Google co-founder Larry Page was recently revealed as the owner of Opener, a Canadian flying car startup. Page’s collection reportedly already includes Cora, a two-seat flying taxi and a flying boat called Flyer, developed by a company called Kitty Hawk.
New Englanders may soon be able to get within hailing distance of one of these sexy little vehicles. According to the Nashua Telegraph, Woburn, MA company Terrafugia is planning to lease space at the Nashua Airport to test what the company calls the world’s first practical flying car. The firm, founded by five MIT grads in 2006, plans to bring the Transition–a two-seat roadable light sport aircraft with wings that fold and unfold, allowing for flying or driving–to the airport for testing in September.
The Terrafugia Transition may look more like an aircraft than a car but its creators say it meets all FAA and NHTSA standards including those for safety, Cnet reports. Company officials say it’s the only aircraft that incorporates the required safety features for cars as well as planes. The company employs more than 200 people and recently teamed up with China Euro Vehicle Technology AB with the hope of rolling the first production vehicles onto the market in 2019.
Perfecting the development of something that really doesn’t exist yet, as well as making sure safety is covered, might seem challenging, but the biggest hurdle for the new sky fleet is likely to come from the regulatory bodies that oversee air travel.
Wired recently weighed in on the topic, pointing out that among the biggest logistical challenges for a new fleet of flying cars will be how to integrate them into an already crowded commercial airspace. In May, FAA officials told attendees at Uber’s Elevate Summit that approval for flying passenger vehicles will likely be more difficult and time-consuming than most people think. Terrafugia co-founder Carl Dietrich agreed that technology will likely move faster than regulators. “We have to be prepared to adapt. We don’t exactly know how this is going to play out, there are things that will arise that we can't foresee.”
John-Paul Clarke, an aerospace engineer at Georgia Tech and member of a National Academy of Science panel that studied autonomy in civil aviation, sees a future where the FAA sets minimum standards while private air traffic controllers are hired by individual cities.
While all of this exciting technology is revving its engines, a value shift appears to be happening that is very much in line with the new options in short-distance travel. As a society with a burgeoning population and a traffic and pollution problem, and we’re progressively moving back to the idea of urban and walkable town neighborhoods rather than sprawling suburbs. Telecommuting is becoming the rule rather than the exception in business. Teens and even some older millennials talk about not especially wanting to learn to drive or own a car.
It’s becoming more evident that owning our own (four) wheels–and parking them in our very own space-hogging garage–is an idea that may belong in the past. The future belongs to ride-sharing and public transit, and though there are scheduling snafus to be worked out, it looks like a vision that’s ready for takeoff.
Lead image courtesy of Volerian; background by Stig Ottesen