Henry Ford built a “flying car” in 1926 – actually, it was a single-seat “Sky Flivver” aircraft that killed its test pilot. In 1940, Ford was still predicting that, “Mark my words: A combination airplane and motorcar is coming.” Sixteen years later, the U.S. Army contracted “flying jeep” prototypes from Chrysler, Curtiss-Wright and Piasecki Aircraft Company, hoping these ducted-fan aircraft might be cheaper and easier to fly than helicopters. That same year, Chuck Berry sang about ditching cops on the turnpike in “You Can’t Catch Me,” inspired by the “Aerocar,” an egg-shaped coupe with folding wings that had staged a successful test flight:
So I let out my wings and then I blew my horn
Bye-bye New Jersey I’ve become airborne
Now you can’t catch me, baby you can’t catch me
‘Cause if you get too close, you know I’m gone like a cool breeze
We’re still waiting, and waiting, for the mythical flying car that would let us commute through the skies, chuckling at snarled traffic and hapless drivers below. But led by the dreamers of Silicon Valley, dozens of companies are racing to revolutionize the skies, with electric air taxis that might connect smaller towns to airports and big cities, and big cities to their own airport hubs – ideally, for the price of an Uber ride or rail ticket.
The Pop.Up concept is the closest analog to the traditional idea of a “flying car.” (Image: Airbus)
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For any aircraft or auto fan, the technology alone is wildly intriguing, though most of these concepts aren’t “flying cars” at all. Instead, they’re more like super-sized drones, big and powerful enough to carry people.
Airbus’ nifty “Pop.Up,” created in conjunction with Italdesign, perhaps hews closest to the traditional fantasy of a flying car. Its modular passenger capsule couples to a four-wheeled chassis to cruise on the street. When roads get congested, that carbon-fiber capsule can decouple from the wheels, and be plucked into the sky by a separate, self-piloted air module with eight counter-rotating rotors. Users could never again blame traffic for being late to work.
Still, myriad obstacles to the technology remain, including daunting costs, safety, noise, regulations, even a potential shortage of qualified commercial pilots. This ain’t Uber, where anyone with a valid driver’s license is free to ply their trade and earn a few dollars per ride.
The mile-high challenges haven’t deterred companies like Kitty Hawk. The California outfit is backed by Larry Page, the billionaire co-founder of Google, and includes former engineers of Waymo, Google’s autonomous car division. Boeing has its own project. The New York Times reports that automakers including Toyota, Daimler and Porsche are investing in a market that Morgan Stanley estimates will be worth $850 billion by 2040. As with any crystal ball aimed so far into the future, you can file that estimate under “wild guesses”.
Electric Lilium Jet takes flight over Germany. (Photo: Lilium)
Germany’s Lilium is a fast-growing start-up with nearly 400 employees, co-founded by 35-year-old Daniel Wiegand. The company made waves by recently staging a successful test flight of its Lilium Jet near Munich. Like many rivals, the Lilium Jet is a battery-powered VTOL aircraft, which stands for vertical takeoff and landing, meaning it can take off and hover like a helicopter, then switch seamlessly to forward flight. Lilium says its craft is powerful and robust enough to carry a pilot and four passengers aloft, and cover up to 200 miles at speeds as high as 190 miles per hour.
“We’re confident that the battery tech that exists today would be capable of that type of flight,” said Oliver Walker-Jones, Lilium spokesman.
The striking five-seat aircraft integrates 36 electric, ducted-fan rotors in its wing flaps, which blast air downward to create vertical lift, then pivot to propel the jet forward. The company’s goal is to have flying taxis in service in several major cities by 2025. It envisions a fleet of these 36-foot-wingspan aircraft carrying passengers from, say, Manhattan to area airports for about $70 per person. For customers in smaller cities and suburbs, affordable air taxis could whisk them in any direction they care to go, with no need to spend billions of infrastructure dollars on new rail lines or highways.
“We see regional air mobility as the answer,” Walker-Jones says. “If you’re connecting JFK to Manhattan, Manhattan to Boston, and all the places in between, suddenly you’re proving a very different service and impact on society.”
No runway required: A Lilium engineer adjusts electric flaps that allow vertical liftoff and landing. (Photo: Lilium)
It all sounds dreamy, but the price sounds like a pipe dream, at least for now. Consider that $70 is about what a taxi or Uber charges to get from Manhattan to JFK, in a $30,000 Toyota Camry that the Uber driver paid for himself, along with its maintenance, registration and license. For flying taxis, companies would have to pay for aircraft that currently cost a few million dollars each, along with salaries for qualified pilots. In other words, the Uber model already depends on shouldering its drivers with 100 percent of the capital costs for equipment and licensing, while paying them pennies on the dollar versus what pilots earn. And Uber still can’t turn a profit. Walker-Jones says that a major challenge for the sector is to scale up production to reduce the price of aircraft, to perhaps several hundred thousand dollars each.
“Of course, an aircraft costs considerably more than a Toyota Camry, but it can also complete more and longer journeys in the same amount of time,” Walker-Jones says, while carrying more people on average, ideally balancing out the extra cost. He adds that electricity costs a fraction of the price of jet fuel, defraying one of the steepest costs of traditional air travel. If the taxis are simply a rich man’s toy, the business won’t get off the… well, you know.
“We want this to be broadly available,” he said. “If you have the cash to jump in an Uber, we want you in the same position for this aircraft.”
Chart shows how Lilium Jet could save time and sail above Los Angeles traffic snarls. (Image: Lilium)
Safety and noise
Lilium and other companies are engaged with both the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), to seek commercial safety certification for their aircraft. As for noise, Lilium’s goal is to make its ducted-fan aircraft exponentially quieter than helicopters, to the point that the craft blend into the urban streetscape, rather than being a nuisance.
Naturally, Uber wants in, and envisions its flying taxis shuttling customers by 2023 — yes, just three years from today — in Los Angeles, Dallas and Melbourne, Australia. Now, whether “Uber” and “aviation” belong in the same sentence is a fair question, considering the company’s notorious corner-cutting on safety for its automated car project. Eric Allison, who leads Uber’s air taxi program, told The New York Times that early generations of its aircraft would be manned by pilots.
But autonomous flight is a long-term goal for many companies, and Allison insists that the technical obstacles are easier than for self-driving cars, simply because there is far less traffic in the sky. For now, no government agency in the world has cleared VTOL aircraft to carry commercial passengers. But Walker-Jones said the fledgling industry intends to meet the same safety standards as today’s commercial aircraft. Helicopters, he noted, are potentially far more hazardous than aircraft powered by up to dozens of electric rotors for fail-safe redundancy; yet helicopters are cleared for commercial use and ferry passengers on a daily basis.
Lilium Jet integrates 36 electric ducted fans in its 36-foot wingspan. (Image: Lilium)
Will it blend?
For all this, Walker Jones says the air taxi business will never succeed without earning the trust of citizens; whether that’s passengers entrusting their lives to these low-emissions “flying cars,” or people whose streets and homes might become flyover zones.
“One thing we’re very conscious of, that’s not a given, is public acceptance,” he says. “You need people who’ll be customers, and for people to accept you.”