Rumor has it the first time Karl Benz drove his 1885 Motorwagen—the world’s first-ever automobile—down a public byway in Manheim, Germany, a passerby exclaimed to a friend, “Wow! Look at that thing! Wouldn’t it be cool if it could fly?”
For as long as automobiles have existed, it seems, drivers have wished their ground-bound cars could take to the air. In 1917, just 14 years after the Wright Brothers’ first powered aircraft flight, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss unveiled his winged, rear-propellered Autoplane. It managed a few brief skips into the air but never really, uh, took off. Years later—following numerous aborted prototypes and several fatal nosedives by would-be flying-car pioneers—aerospace engineer Moulton “Molt” Taylor unveiled his 1949 Aerocar, a “roadable aircraft” that towed its wings when driving and actually worked. In 1956 the Aerocar even received certification by the Civil Aeronautics Administration, forerunner to today’s FAA. Alas, Taylor’s machine never received the required 500 orders to reach production status, and just six were built. (They all still exist; three are even said still to be airworthy.)
“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” —Dr. Emmett Brown, ‘Back to the Future’
Fast-forward several decades, and we reach the ending of 1985’s biggest Hollywood blockbuster, when mad scientist Doc Brown promises teenagers Marty McFly and Jennifer Parker that the future to which his time-traveling DeLorean is taking the three of them will be a place where cars can fly—no roads necessary. That faraway year in question? 2015.
Turns out, depending upon whom you talk to, the wacky Doc may only have been five to 10 years off.
Defining “Just Around the Corner”
Way back in 1940, none other than Henry Ford himself predicted, “Mark my words. A combination of airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.” Almost 80 years later, we’re still smiling. Despite decades of breathless “Your New Flying Car!” magazine covers and countless, baseless hype pieces on the evening news, no one has yet produced a fully functional, commercially available vehicle capable of taking to roadways and the air with equal ease. But maybe, just maybe—if you believe today’s engineers and entrepreneurs—our Jetsons future of “Personal Air Vehicles” (PAVs) may actually now be just over the horizon.
“We’ve already designed, built, and flown a flying car for more than 200 hours,” says Chuck Evans, vice president of marketing for Terrafugia, a Massachusetts-based firm founded in 2006 by five MIT graduates. Evans says the company’s “Transition” proof-of-concept prototype, a two-seat aircraft whose wings fold inward at the push of a button for road driving, “will be certified as a light sport aircraft in 2019.” (It will require a sport pilot license to fly.) As for the company’s ambitious follow-up, the TF-2—a modular air vehicle that will transport a dockable, detachable road car—Evans says, “We’re targeting 2023 to be fully operational.”
Juraj Vaculík, co-founder and CEO of Slovakia-based AeroMobil, says, “When we flew our first concept vehicle in 2013, you could count similar projects on one hand. Today, there are more than 100 projects. Numerous trials are running in cities all around the world, from São Paolo, Brazil—where they are testing an affordable helicopter service—to Singapore, with their ‘skyways’ project for goods delivery by drones.”
Vaculík acknowledges that the grail is a fully autonomous, electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicle—which he believes might be achievable by 2030-2035. Meantime, chairman Patrick Hessel says of his company’s AeroMobil 4.0, “We are starting out with a ‘supercar with superpowers,’ a two-seater with a beautiful design that drives like a normal car and is easy to fly.” Hessel says the 4.0, a short takeoff and landing (STOL) machine available for preorder since 2017 with first deliveries expected around 2020, will be designed for “aviators who want a unique flying experience and supercar buyers who appreciate the quality engineering and design concept.” Cost: about $1.2 million. Hessel says AeroMobil’s next product, the 5.0, “will be a VTOL vehicle, and it will provide a unique mode of transport across urban and intercity routes. Imagine a taxi picking you up in front of your house, driving you to the closest vertiport, flying you to your destination, then driving you to your final stop.” AeroMobil hopes to launch the 5.0 by 2025.
Some big names are in the game. The Kitty Hawk Flyer, a dronelike machine intended to be flyable without a pilot’s license, is backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, who is said to have invested more than $100 million in flying-car startups. And luxury automaker Aston Martin has teamed with Rolls-Royce (the maker of turbine aircraft engines, not the automaker of the same name) to produce the three-passenger, hybrid-electric Volante Vision eVTOL concept.
“We approached Cranfield University, the U.K.’s leading university for aerospace research, about exploring what a low-altitude luxury aviation vehicle might look like,” Aston Martin chief marketing officer Simon Sproule says. “They agreed to work with us—and also suggested we reach out to Rolls-Royce. By 2018 we’d built a 40 percent model and unveiled it not at a car show but at an air show. And there we were—a little booth amid the huge displays by Boeing, Lockheed—and the response was remarkable! So now we’ve moved on to studying whether there’s a business case for our ‘sports car in the sky.’”
And then there are the big aviation firms. Airbus is working on a fully automated flying taxi under its Silicon Valley-based A3 arm. The Project Vahana team’s 20-foot-wide Alpha One eVTOL prototype completed its first test flight in early 2018 on a test range near Pendleton, Oregon. In January of this year, Boeing also began test-flying an eVTOL concept, produced by its recently acquired Aurora Flight Sciences subsidiary under the direction of Boeing NeXt, the company’s future-transport unit.
Aurora is one of several partners working on vehicles for Uber’s planned Elevate air-taxi program. (Uber Elevate did not respond to interview requests.) Uber hopes to unveil a commercial air-taxi service by 2023, projecting that an Uber Air might charge, say, $90 for a 29-minute ride that would cost $60 and require 69 minutes using a conventional UberX car service. If design goals can be met, Uber’s eVTOL vehicle will function much like a smaller version of the U.S. military’s V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. Twin blades at each end of a wing will lift the vehicle vertically like a helicopter, then rotate forward to propel the craft horizontally like a plane at speeds of up to 200 mph. In a 2018 interview with CBS News, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said initial flights will be piloted but would eventually be fully automated. Apparently, that means post-trip driver ratings and tips will go the way of the dodo, too.
Brazilian aircraft maker Embraer, under its new EmbraerX division, is also working on an eVTOL machine that could be employed by Uber Air. “Two cities are slated for the launch of proof-of-concept VTOL ecosystems: Dallas and Los Angeles,” says business development director David Rottblatt. “Upon validation of the ecosystem, in 2020, more cities will be added to the launch list, based on criteria that will enable deployment of an eVTOL ecosystem in each community.”
One Destination, Two Flight Paths
What’s clear is that the “aero-mobility” sector is headed in two distinct directions. First are roadable aircraft that can be driven but require a pilot’s license to fly and a runway to take off from and land on. In theory, these will be aimed at affluent enthusiasts, owned and enjoyed like high-end exotic sports cars. The other route is far more complex but potentially far more transformative in the long term: fully autonomous, dronelike eVTOL machines running on electric or hybrid powertrains that anyone can ride—no runways required, just pay as you go. The Uber model. Each side has its advocates.
“I’m not a fan of the words ‘flying cars,’” says Alex Zosel, co-founder of Volocopter GmbH, headquartered just northwest of Stuttgart, Germany, and funded partly by Daimler. “We are looking at autonomous air taxis. They make the most sense. You eliminate human error in flight. Not having a pilot aboard also frees up a seat for another passenger. I’m also a strong believer in vertical takeoff and landing. Runways will take up too much space in cities.”
Volocopter’s current eVTOL design, a battery-powered, 18-rotor two-seater, flies via a single joystick for up to 30 minutes at a top speed of roughly 60 mph. In September 2017, an unmanned version of the so-called Autonomous Air Taxi (AAT) completed a successful test flight in Dubai—a city that hopes to have automated taxis handling up to 25 percent of all its urban passenger travel by 2030. “We expect the first commercial routes in the next three to five years,” Zosel says. “Full system coverage for large megacities by 10 to 15 years. Then taking an air taxi will be as normal as taking a ground taxi nowadays.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson asks the question, “Why would you want a flying car in the first place?” He argues we already have them.
Ten years ago, Sam Bousfield, a former architect and aprivate pilot, founded Samson Sky in Redmond, Oregon, to design and build his Switchblade flying car. (It’s scheduled for its first test flights about the time you read this.) He’s convinced that, for now at least, roadable aircraft like his Switchblade and AeroMobil’s 4.0 are the way to go. “The eVTOLs have a distinct disadvantage,” Bousfield says. “They lack the infrastructure, the technology, and the regulations—those are three huge hurdles. The point-to-point approach only works if you have a place to land, and right now there aren’t many. Even most downtown helipads aren’t where you want to go. But almost every city has an airport; many have several. And all the regulations for flying an aircraft are already in place.” Bousfield hopes to sell his Switchblade as a build-it-yourself kit, priced at about $120,000 in its most basic form.
Like Volocopter, Chinese drone maker EHang’s 184 one-passenger quadcopter stands squarely in the eVTOL camp. “EHang is a big advocate of autonomous aerial vehicles,” a company spokesperson says. “We launched the first electric passenger-grade AAV for low-airspace short-distance air transport at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2016.” Since then, the company claims the 184 has conducted thousands of hours of flight tests—many with human passengers—in China, the U.S., and Dubai. The craft is designed for fully automated flight; the passenger simply enters their desired destination via a central screen and then presses a “takeoff” button. The 184 is said to be able to fly up to 10 miles or for around 23 minutes. A two-passenger 216 model is also under development.
Dutch maker PAL-V’s Liberty is closer to a roadable aircraft than an eVTOL vehicle, but it takes a slightly different form. The Liberty is a gyroplane. Like the Switchblade and AeroMobil 4.0, it will require a pilot’s license to fly—but it doesn’t have wings. For lift, the Liberty uses blades like a helicopter, except the blades are powered only by wind. The twin Rotax engines that propel the Liberty forward via a rear propeller provide the airflow to keep the parachute-like overhead blades constantly spinning. If both engines fail, the gyrocopter simply glides down for a short-field landing. To switch to road mode, the blades and tail section fold up against the bodywork in about 15 minutes. PAL-V hopes to begin European deliveries in 2020.
ROADBLOCKS IN THE SKY
Most industry insiders will tell you technology is the smallest of the hurdles facing our flying-car future. After all, roadable aircraft and even advanced eVTOL prototypes are already testing in the air. But bringing that technology to market as a viable transportation option—with reliable hardware, infrastructure, rules, air-traffic management, and safety standards in place? The barriers are daunting. Then again, today’s commercial aviation system started from zero just more than a century ago. There’s no reason to believe an entirely new transportation mode couldn’t be developed—at least given enough time and money. To name just one company, Boeing will move into a new Aerospace and Autonomy Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by 2020; the facility will be tasked with helping define the next century of air mobility.
The bigger speed bump in the sky might actually be philosophical. There’s a clip from “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast in which famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wonders why anyone would want a flying car in the first place. In the clip, Tyson argues we already have flying cars. “They’re called helicopters. They’re noisy. They have to create a downward thrust of air equal to its own weight. That’s what a flying car is gonna have to do. They completely disrupt the terrain wherever they fly. You don’t want a flying car. You want to travel in the third dimension. We already have that. They’re called tunnels. They’re called bridges. … Too many cars? You can’t move? Let’s build a subway.” Tyson also points to the coming wave of automated cars. “If you have automated cars, you don’t need flying cars.”
Tyson ends with a dark-humored warning: “You get some testosterone-infused guy who doesn’t want to let you get ahead of him, and he tries to bump you, then you break the propeller and you both fall out of the sky.” He looks at Rogan, and they almost say it aloud together: “Sky rage.”
Yes, our flying-car future may indeed be “just around the corner.” Or, quite possibly, given the enormous safety and regulation issues still to overcome, the best-case predictions of today are still wildly optimistic. Bottom line: Your Uber Air is probably on its way. Just don’t be surprised if it’s late.