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Are Flying Cars Really A Thing?

Flying cars are no longer just a Jetsons fantasy

19Sep

Electric cars and self driving cars have been the darling of the tech community over the past few years, but as impressive as they are, are they already being disrupted themselves?

Whilst many of us have had our heads turned by Tesla and Google’s attempts to create driverless cars, companies like Uber, Airbus, Google founder Larry Page’s company Zee.Aero, and Germany based startup Lilium want us to look to the sky. They are each working on their versions of flying cars, which have the potential to completely change the way that people travel between cities.

Whilst it sounds like the definition of a moonshot, there have been hundreds of millions already invested in the idea, with Larry Page alone investing $100 million in his project in June 2016 and Lilium having received $90 million in their most recent round of investment. Earlier this year, Lilium demonstrated the first viable product after testing it in front of journalists in April 2017. What sets it apart from other attempts at developing a flying car is that it takes off and lands vertically, but also that it’s electric rather than simply using traditional fossil fuels or a hybrid of the two systems.

However, not to be outdone, Uber claimed in their Elevate summit in April 2017 that they aim to demonstrate a flying car network by 2020 and then to be in full operation by 2023. Given they are yet to demonstrate one car, it shows how quickly this is moving and how confident they are in their product.

Flying cars have the potential to be truly disruptive, completely changing the way that people move around the country in ways that self driving cars cannot. One of the major issues that self driving and electric cars can’t solve is that roads have limited movement potential because of how they are designed. When you consider that roads essentially act like a system of veins and arteries across the country, they force vehicles to take routes that are convenient for transporting people and goods to any area, rather than one particular location. For instance, if you were to use a flying car, the distance between Detroit and New York is 481 miles, but if you were to drive, that distance is 632 miles - 31% further. Roads also provide huge physical limitations too, not least a huge amount of friction to overcome, which means that speeds are much more limited. For instance the Boeing 737, not exactly the world’s fastest plane, cruises at 938kmh whilst the world’s fastest F1 cars have a top speed of 375 kmh (the world’s fastest plane travels at 7,200 kmh).

One of the key elements of most of the designs is that they are also self driving, which to many sounds scarier than a self-driving car, simply because the vast majority of people can relate to driving on roads compared to piloting an aircraft. However, the technology for flying automatically has already been around for decades providing huge amounts of data that can be used to feed these systems. For instance there were over 24 million general aviation flight hours in the US alone in 2015, providing more data in one year than all self driving cars have created in history. Autopilot, in its earliest form, was invented in 1914, and was used in 1947 in a C-54 for the first fully automated transatlantic flight including take off and landing. It has had tens of millions of hours of use already, ferrying billions of souls with very few incidents in the past 70 years.

The most dangerous aspects of any flight, take off, and landing, can also be made considerably safer thanks to technologies like those used by Lilium, where the car takes off and lands vertically. This helps with one of the key elements that almost every plan includes - a central landing/storage/refuelling station, giving better access to urban areas. Uber are attempting to provide these through partnerships and are working with Hillwood Properties in Texas and Dubai Holding in the UAE to identify where their ‘vertiports’ should be located and then having them built. They will also be working with Chargepoint to develop the infrastructure to keep them airborne. In a paper published in October 2016 they estimated they would need 1000 aircraft operating from 83 vertiports, each providing 12 charging points in order to serve 3 or 4 cities.

It seems with the technology being developed by Lilium, and Uber’s infrastructure design that there is certainly a possibility that we could see small numbers of flying cars being used to ferry people between cities, except that they will require FAA approval, something that has historically taken many years to achieve. However, Richard Pat Anderson, director of the Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, believes that ‘2020 is realistic for a vehicle that is not replacing an airplane but replacing a car,’ so maybe it isn’t too far off at all.

The potential height of these flights, especially for Lilium’s all-electric versions is relatively low and have the ability to be more prevalent than helicopters as many of the restrictions in place around them is based on noise rather than safety. Lilium believe that they can get the noise level of their model to be comparable to a motorbike, whilst still providing a 300km range and top cruising speed of 180 miles per hour. This is both a blessing and curse for FAA decisions, because they will fly too low to impact current air traffic, but that could increase pressure on them to avoid low level obstacles like tall buildings and utility wires.

Regardless of whether we see flying cars in the next 5 years or the next 50, what is clear is that there are hundreds of millions being invested in the idea, and rather than just being a Jetson’s fantasy, we are likely to see cars flying above our heads within many of our lifetimes. 

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