The stuff of fantasy for decades, are flying cars to become reality at last?
It’s easy to think that our fascination with flying cars is a recent phenomenon. However, way back in 1940, Henry Ford famously predicted: “Mark my word: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”
Uber ups the ante
So the news this week that Uber has hired a ‘flying car’ engineer from Nasa, feels like a real step towards making Ford’s predictions come true.
Mark Moore joined Uber’s Elevate division as director of engineering for aviation. Commenting on his appointment, the company said that It welcomed its wider role was as a catalyst to the “growing VTOL ecosystem”.
Uber, which is already investing in self-driving cars, with partnerships with Volvo and Daimler, outlined its interest in flying cars in a White Paper published last October called Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation.
The 98-page White Paper details Uber Elevate’s vision for ‘on-demand’ vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aviation. An extract reads: “Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground.” It proposes a network of small, electric VTOL aircraft that “will enable rapid, reliable transportation between suburbs and cities and, ultimately, within cities.”
Race to be the first
Of course, it’s not just Uber that sees the potential here. More than a dozen companies, with as many different design approaches, are all working to make VTOLs a reality.
Naturally, many are American, such as Joby Aviation with its S2 and S4 concepts; Airbus A³, the company’s advanced projects and partnerships division, with its Vahana concept; and Terrafugia’s TF-X. But the race is a truly international one, with Slovakian company AeroMobil, for example, aiming to commercialise its prototype flying car this year.
As the name suggests, AeroMobil is remaining true to the flying car dream. The publicity material on its site says, “AeroMobil is a flying car that perfectly makes use of existing infrastructure created for automobiles and planes, and opens doors to real door-to-door travel. As a car it fits into any standard parking space, uses regular gasoline, and can be used in road traffic just like any other car. As a plane it can use any airport in the world, but can also take off and land using any grass strip or paved surface just a few hundred meters long.”
The version we see today, AeroMobil 3.0, has certainly come a long way since version 1.0 back in 1990. In fact version 3.0 has been in regular flight-testing program in real flight conditions since October 2014.
The AeroMobil 3.0 is predominantly built from advanced composite material and contains all the main features that are likely to be incorporated into the final product, such as avionics equipment, autopilot and an advanced parachute deployment system (phew!).
11 feasibility barriers
Safety is of course a massive concern with the prospect of either manned or un-manned flying cars mixing it up in our skies, along with Amazon delivery drones and military spy bots! So it’s little surprise that safety is one of the 11 ‘Market Feasibility Barriers’ Uber has identified that will need to be addressed before making its dream a reality.
For widespread public adoption of VTOLs as a ridesharing option, riding in a VTOL must be safer than riding in an automobile. In order that VTOLs are accepted by the market, claiming that the vehicles are merely as safe as driving… will almost certainly be insufficient.
- The Certification Process
Before VTOLs can operate in any country, they will need to comply with regulations from aviation authorities—namely the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) who regulate 50% and 30% of the world’s aviation activity.
- Battery Technology
Electric propulsion has many desirable characteristics that make it the preferable propulsion choice for the VTOL aircraft contemplated in this document, however the amount of energy per unit weight provided by batteries today is insufficient for long-range commutes.
- Vehicle Efficiency
Helicopters are the closest current-day proxy for the VTOLs discussed in this paper, but they are far too energy inefficient to be economically viable for large-scale operations. With a focus on ridesharing, a more mission-optimized vehicle is possible, e.g utilizing distributed electric propulsion (DEP) technology.
- Vehicle Performance and Reliability
Saving time is a key aspect of the VTOL value proposition. In the ridesharing use case, we measure and minimize the comprehensive time elapsed between request and drop-off. This is affected by both vehicle performance, particularly cruise speed and take-off and landing time, and system reliability.
- Air Traffic Control (ATC)
Urban airspace is actually open for business today, and with ATC systems exactly as they are, a VTOL service could be launched and even scaled to possibly hundreds of vehicles. São Paulo, for example, already flies hundreds of helicopters per day.
- Cost and Affordability
As mentioned above, helicopters are the closest proxy to the VTOLs contemplated in this paper, but they are prohibitively expensive to operate as part of a large-scale transportation service. Simpler, quieter and more operationally efficient vehicle designs are proposed which leverage digital control rather than mechanical complexity.
- Aircraft Noise
For urban air transportation to thrive, the vehicles must be acceptable to communities, and vehicle noise plays a significant role… ultimately we believe VTOLs should be one-half as loud as a medium-sized truck passing a house.
VTOLs … should clearly be ecologically responsible and sustainable. Among the advantages of electric propulsion designs is that they have zero operational emissions. This leaves energy generation with its associated emissions as the primary concern.
- Vertiport/Vertistop Infrastructure in Cities
The greatest operational barrier to deploying a VTOL fleet in cities is a lack of sufficient locations to place landing pads. Even if VTOLs were certified to fly today, cities simply don’t have the necessary takeoff and landing sites for the vehicles to operate at fleet scale.
- Pilot Training
Training to become a commercial pilot under FAR Part 135 requires 500 hours of pilot-in-command experience for VFR and 1200 hours for IFR. As on-demand VTOL service scales, the need for pilots will rapidly increase, and it’s likely that with these training requirements, a shortage in qualified pilots will curtail growth significantly.
History is littered with ‘nearly-men’ and the dream of flying cars is no different – just ask the Moller Skycar M400. But recent technological advances combined with a renewed hunger, plus some pretty substantial budgets, mean we’re closer than ever to turning science fiction into science fact.