Flying Car Flight of Fancy Gets Real

People have been dreaming about flying cars since the early days of the auto and aircraft industries. But until recently such flights of fancy have existed only in our imagination and futuristic science fiction stories.  

Not anymore. Dozens of companies are testing prototype flying cars, with several poised to offer personal aircrafts in the next few years. The list includes transportation industry giants such as Airbus and Uber as well as a host of tech companies and startups.

Development programs range from single-seat gyrocopters and airborne boats to drones, personal planes and road-style cars that can be quickly converted into light aircraft. They all promise to improve personal mobility, reduce congestion, enhance safety and, in some cases, even lower transportation costs.

Many of the designs are electric systems with some level of automation. Uber, which recently hired former U.S. National Air and Space Administration engineer Mark Moore, plans to begin passenger tests of flying taxis in Dallas and Dubai by 2020. The ride-sharing company is working with several aviation firms, including Bell Helicopter, on the program.

In Dallas, Uber will team with Hillwood Properties next year to start building four “vertiports” with multiple landing pads and a recharging infrastructure designed specifically for flight applications. The company also is partnering with the government of Dubai and expects to conduct passenger flights of vertical takeoff and landing aircraft as part of the World Expo 2020 in in the United Arab Emirates city.

China’s EHang also is targeting Dubai with a flying car that it plans to launch there this summer. The vehicles, which would be equipped with an emergency parachute, promise to transport occupants from one skyscraper roof to another.

This year PAL-V International, which is one of the early pioneers of the technology, launched commercial sales in North America and Europe of its Liberty Pioneer and Liberty Sport flying cars. The Dutch company plans to begin pre-production later this year and start deliveries by the end of 2018. Buyers can reserve the flying cars with non-refundable deposits of $10,000 for the $400,000 Liberty Sport and $25,000 for the $600,000 Liberty Pioneer.

Users must have a gyroplane license to fly the vehicles, which PAL-V says can be obtained with as little as 30 hours of training. The vehicles are powered by a dual-engine propulsion system. Lift is made possible by helicopter-like blades that slowly rotate overhead from air moving past them. Propulsion is provided by a rear propeller. It takes less than 10 minutes to switch between car and plane modes, according to the company. Takeoff can be achieved in as little as 100 ft. Landing requires even less room and can be done even if both engines fail, the company says. PAL-V notes gyrocopters can’t stall, and it claims crosswind landings are easier and safer than with a fixed wing airplane because of significantly less turbulence.

Last month Google CEO and co-founder Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk company unveiled a prototype “ultralight” aircraft that can take off vertically over water. The company aims to launch commercial sales of the vehicle, which resembles a jet ski with wings, later this year. Another Page-backed startup, Zee.Aero, is testing prototype electric car-planes at a NASA research center near Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Meanwhile, Airbus is working with Volkswagen’s Italdesign unit on a concept vehicle with a passenger pod that can separate from the rest of the vehicle and be airlifted over traffic by a drone. The partners unveiled the concept model at the Geneva auto show in March. The one-seat car will have a capsule that sits on top of a self-driving chassis. The occupant can trigger the capsule to separate from the chassis and be picked up by a large (about 16-ft by 16-ft) drone that can fly the module to its destination, while the chassis continues driving in autonomous mode.

The program is separate from the flying taxi that Airbus is developing on its own. The French aeronautics giant plans to demonstrate the vertical take-off and landing vehicle later this year and launch commercial applications early next decade.

Lilium, a Germany-based startup, completed an unmanned test flight of the vertical takeoff two-seat plane it hopes to launch as an air taxi by the end of the decade. The company claims the aircraft can fly 186 miles with a top speed of 186 mph. That would make it three times as fast with 10 times the range of more complex quadcopter concepts, according to the company. It also boasts that its all-electric system will be quieter, faster and less expensive than a traditional helicopter. Lilium envisions the production model, which is expected to seat five people, being used as a flying taxi in crowded cities.

Another Dutch company, Terrafugia, is taking deposits for its gyroplane and TF-X “transitional” model. The company, which was founded by five MIT grads, last October opened a driving school in Utah to instruct users how to fly/drive. And entrepreneur Dezso Molnar is launching a race series for flying cars to help jumpstart the fledgling industry. Molnar has been testing his GT gyrocycle—which teams a motorcycle-style body with a propeller and rotary wing—for more than a decade.

Despite the recent advances, a lot of work still needs to be done to make flying cars a reality. In addition to improving and validating technical systems, other challenges include getting federal certification, air traffic control concerns, building an infrastructure and gaining public support. But the prevailing winds have shifted and now appear to be backing such transportation. Let the count down begin.