Oct 3rd 2017

Flying Cars: Fact, Fiction and the Road to Manufacturing

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“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” It’s a classic line from “Back to the Future” — Doc Brown has returned from the future and the iconic DeLorean can now fly. Companies like Uber and Toyota are spending big on research for flying cars. This begs the question: Where’s the fact, what’s the fiction and how far are we from getting these cars off the ground?

Promising Potential

The first “true” gasoline-powered automobile was created in 1885; the first manned flight took place less than 20 years later. And for the past century, humankind has been looking for ways to combine these types of transportation — often with limited success. As noted by the Washington Post, key advancements — such as the use of non-metal body structures and electric power rather than heavy gasoline engines — have helped jump-start flying-car efforts, encouraging both investment and innovation. A recent Forbes piece suggests that this could be a “breakthrough year” for flying vehicles, with some companies planning to deploy market-ready models by 2019.

Single Purpose or Multifunction?

What does a flying car look like? Several designs have emerged over the past few years — for example, Toyota is backing a three-wheeled, one-person vehicle which uses four sets of propellers to take flight. Other companies envision flying cars which mimic traditional vehicles in terms of carrying capacity and aesthetic. Uber, meanwhile, wants to create a fleet of VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) taxis which will shuttle passengers between designated landing pads.

Ultimately, flying-car function comes down to a simple question: Are these vehicles single-purpose or do they need to perform equally well on ground and in flight? Given the dual challenges of urban density and federal airspace regulation, the most likely outcome here is vehicles which can drive to designated air strips or landing pads and then safely take to the skies.

Engineering Efficiency

Metallic_microlattice
A block of metallic microlattice being supported by a dandelion seed head (Wikimedia Commons).

Beyond form, however, there’s the challenge of getting these cars into the sky — and keeping them there. One of the biggest setbacks of previous flying-car efforts was weight; consider the development of micro-lattice materials, which are 100 times lighter than styrofoam and have the strength of conventional metals. These and other materials could be used to build lighter batteries, cockpits and motor parts.

And as noted by Singularity Hub, motors are another critical factor. All-electric aircraft such as the Lilium use multiple motors to get off the ground — this multiplicity functions as a fail-safe if one motor stops working. As to powering new airborne vehicles, think green: Batteries and electricity are the likely choice since gas-powered engines are simply too heavy. Achieving sustained flight, however, will require both bigger battery storage and potentially the inclusion of small solar panels to charge vehicles in-flight.

Law of the Skies

Innovators have created viable flying-car forms, while evolving power sources and materials make it possible to achieve liftoff. This leads to a critical question: What does traffic look like when no one’s on the road? Ideally, more flying cars means fewer vehicles on highways, but how do governments regulate airborne automobiles? One option is the creation of designated “highways” for flying cars, reducing the chance of accidental injury or property damage. As noted by the Forbes piece, that’s part of the discussion currently underway at Amazon as the online giant looks to roll out drone-based delivery.

There’s also the problem of actually “driving” these vehicles, since most operators may not be licensed pilots. One solution is the Uber model, where riders don’t own the vehicle and drivers are trained aviators. This dovetails nicely with the potential cost of these vehicles — north of $1 million — but that could change if economies of scale catch up with flying-car markets. In a personally owned flying-car scenario, the more likely option is computer-controlled navigation to prevent airborne collisions and ensure safe routes are followed. Safety is also a concern; what happens when flying cars experience technical issues or unexpected motor failure? Parachutes might save onboard occupants, but what about collateral damage? Ultimately, federal agencies like the FAA will be looking for much more rigorous testing, retesting and independent evaluation before flying vehicles gain widespread approval.

Flying cars aren’t that far off — expect the next five years to showcase both viable market options and uncover significant adoptive challenges on the path to personal flight.

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