Flying Cars or Flying Drones?

The NMA Foundation presents the Car of the Future weekly feature:

As many motorists can attest, traffic congestion seems to get worse each passing day. As more people move to urban cores, roads, streets and highways cannot be widened or built fast enough and neither can public transit. Could building sky roads to accommodate flying cars or passenger drones be an alternative?

The difference between a flying car and a flying passenger drone is simple—a flying car can be used on both the ground and in the air while a flying drone can only be used in the air. Whether a flying car or flying drone, both would need to utilize vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) technology.  Passenger drone design favors “distributed electronic propulsion” which unlike a helicopter utilizes multiple propellers (usually four) each powered by its own smaller motor. This allows for mechanical simplicity and lighter weight but sacrifices lifting power and flight performance. Engines should be quieter which could be a huge factor for urbanites. Safety of course is the biggest concern.

Airbus’ Silicon Valley A3 CEO Robin Lyasoff says that much of the technology for flying vehicles exists except for one of the biggest challenges that cannot be underestimated when operating fast moving vehicles in urban cores: the sense and avoid sensors that ensure flying vehicles can circumvent obstacles off their own volition.

Lyasoff adds, “We believe that global demand for this category of aircraft can support fleets of millions of vehicles worldwide. In as little as 10 years, we could have products on the market that revolutionize urban travel for millions.”

Sanjiv Singh, Carnegie Mellon University robotics researcher and CEO of Near Earth Autonomy suggests that instead of leaping forward with fully automated passenger drones, unmanned cargo runs might be a better test of the AI. He adds, “I think the big roadblock is the regulatory infrastructure that has to be put into place.” Singh sees a long road ahead filled with testing, analysis, regulation and efforts to build public trust before the VTOL personal vehicle technology becomes a viable transportation option.

Last fall, the ridesharing company Uber publicized its Elevate program. Several companies are now racing forward building VTOL aircraft that could help make Elevate a reality. Uber released a whitepaper that anticipates a time when on-demand urban air transportation is widespread, possibly within a decade. Uber’s vision: a network of small, electric aircraft utilizing VTOL technology that would open up routes between cities and suburbs, reducing the time it once took from hours to a matter of minutes.

Airbus has partnered with an Italdesign and has come up with a car-drone hybrid called Pop.Up.  A drivable passenger capsule (not described as a car by the way), about the size of a smart car, attaches to a giant quadcoptor that then can lift into the air. The quadcoptor part is quite big and ugly but looks like it could easily cart the capsule around and over traffic. Controlled by AI and all electric, the Pop.Up would be summoned via phone app.

Italdesign CEO Joerg Astalosh says, “Today, automobiles are part of a much wider eco-system: if you want to design the urban vehicle of the future, the traditional car cannot alone be the solution for megacities. In the next years, ground transportation will move to the next level and from being shared, connected and autonomous, it will also be multimodal and moving into the third dimension.”

Other startups are also figuring out the multimodal, third dimensional sci fi fantasies to reality flying contraptions.

–In February, Chinese startup EHANG announced it would debut passenger drone service in Dubai this July. EHANG’s vehicle resembles an overgrown quadcopter with a passenger cab perched on top.

–In December 2016, Lilium Aviation announced the company was developing a jet with VTOL technology. The jet would not have wheels so it can not officially be called a “flying car.” The Lilium jet would fit two passengers, with an estimated cruising capacity of 250 to 300 km/h (160 to 190 mph) and a range of 300 km or 190 miles. The company plans to flight test this year.

–Massachusetts-based Terrafugia was founded in 2006 by five pilots and MIT graduates.  The company has recently received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on their roadable aircraft that they hope will pave the way to getting unmanned passenger vehicles in the air by 2018.

In survey after survey, people say they are not quite ready for driverless cars, so do flying cars or passenger drones seem like such a viable alternative or addition to the disruptive mix?

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The NMA Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation.  The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions. 

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If you are interested in learning more about the Car of the Future check out the following NMA resources:

NMA Driving News Feed—Over 50 Car of the Future stories are placed each month in the NMA Driving News—the go-to source for all your driving news information from around the country.

NMA’s Flipboard Magazine called Car of the Future—Over 50 stories are placed each month in this magazine devoted to the Car of the Future.  Stories featured include future car politics, industry news and thought pieces.

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