For decades flying cars have obsessed technologists but eluded their mastery. Finally there is reason to believe. Several firms have offered hope that flying people in small pods for short trips might become a reality in the next decade. These are not cars, as most are not fit to drive on land, but rather small vehicles, which can rise and land vertically, like quiet helicopters.
A prototype of a small electric plane capable of flying up to 300 kilometres per hour, made by Lilium, a German startup, completed a successful test over Bavaria on April 20th. Lilium is starting work on a five-seat vehicle and hopes to offer a ride-hailing service. Another German firm, e-volo, has been testing a flying vehicle for several years. It recently showed off the second version of its electric Volocopter (pictured), which could be certified for flight as soon as next year.
There are at least a dozen firms experimenting with making small flying vehicles in different guises, including Airbus, an aerospace giant, in partnership with Italdesign Giugiaro, a division of Volkswagen, a carmaker. Many plan to have a certified pilot in command at the beginning and then move on to an autonomous set-up when regulations allow. Motorcycle-type vehicles, which you sit astride, are also in the works.
No matter which manufacturer is quickest to gain velocity, Uber, a ride-hailing firm, aims to be at the centre of things. On April 25th it held an event in Dallas to announce its plan to offer a service where people can hail an electric “vertical takeoff and landing” vehicle and ride it quickly to destinations that would otherwise take hours in heavy traffic. Uber does not want to build these aircraft or landing pads itself, just as it does not own its own cars. Instead, it plans to collaborate with other companies. But Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer, does not exclude the possibility that the firm may at the outset own some aircraft, which he estimates will cost around $1m each.
The firm plans to have a prototype of its service ready by 2020. It will launch it first in Dallas and in Dubai, both cities where the authorities have deep aviation expertise and where people commute long distances. The firm rather optimistically promises that the cost per aerial mile for passengers will be roughly that of its low-cost car service, UberX.
There is plenty for manufacturers and services like Uber to overcome beyond gravity. For battery-powered models, range is limited and the charging rate remains slow. Manufacturers will need to ensure that vehicles can take off and land quietly, if this new form of transport is to stand a chance in cities. How to oversee and license the new aircraft, which are subject to much tougher rules than cars, will be a subject of intense debate among rule-makers, who tend to move slowly and are just getting to grips with drones. Drivers of flying vehicles are also likely to require a pilot’s licence, albeit perhaps a simplified “sports” licence. The journey ahead will be a long one.