We were promised that the future would bring flying cars, right? We were. And the good news is that tech entrepreneurs around the world are finally getting started on creating what are commonly known as VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing, pronounced vee-toll) vehicles designed at car size.
Of course, no one is ready for flying cars quite yet. There’s no infrastructure to support them, and a whole new set of auto laws would have to be drawn up to regulate them (like personal drones, but a thousand times worse). The first commercial VTOLs we will see won’t be hanging out at the local auto dealer—they’ll be taxi services built to shuttle people from part of a city to another.
Here’s all the current projects that want to put you in the seat of a flying car.
Uber’s VTOL taxis
Of all the VTOL taxi projects, Uber’s is the most ambitious. The company is currently planning on launching pilot program for “Uber Elevate” flying taxies in Dallas and Los Angelas. Uber has been working on this project since 2016, and hopes to see results soon.
While Uber has stated that it wants flying cars that can movie horizontally (preferably on road) as well as vertically, the company is keeping largely quiet on just what prototypes it is considering. We know they have five different partners working on creating a flying car model, including a Boeing research lab.
Uber’s expansion is important because it gives us a good idea of the challenges involved in adopting flying cars around the world (which is also kind of a bummer). For example, personal VTOLs just don’t function dependably in a city with lots of harsh weather, so Uber is limited to choosing cites with very mild conditions and little rain for safety reasons—as well as cities with the right shape and metro areas for taxis. Uber also needs real estate partners and friendly governments so they can work out all the associated regulations. Since Uber’s ideal taxis will be electric in nature, the company also needs a very reliable, scalable electrical grid to work with. These requirements add up quickly, and show how much work these flying car entrepreneurs have ahead of them.
AeroMobil’s ambitious prototype
AeroMobil, based in Slovakia, is determined to making a functioning flying car. They are on their fourth prototype, so you know they aren’t joking. All the prototypes are loosely known as the “AeroMobil” and when a commercial launch date is set (the company is hoping for 2020, with finalized version of the model aimed for 2025) it will no doubt continue the brand name.
The company has plenty of concept art to show how car would work in its final form. It’s one of the more notable “hybrid” models, and we aren’t talking about fuel. Unlike true VTOLs, hybrid flying cars are often designed to take off of runways to gain flight, but also have the ability to revert to a more car-like shape that allows them to drive on roads. As you can tell, this requires both retractable wheels and wings, along with a very efficient fuel system. AeroMobil is hoping that it can create a functional electronic model. The company has partnered with notable organizations including Starburst, an aerospace “accelerator” to help get their car to market ASAP.
Project Vahana, via Airbus, seeks to create an electric VTOL aircraft that is entirely self-piloted. There’s a lot of advantages to the self-piloting model. It can save costs when it comes to hiring and training pilots (who typically expect a higher salary than a taxi driver), and software engineers already have plenty of experience creating autopilot system for larger planes that can be applied to these VTOLs. It’s also an ideal way to run a taxi service, since the cars can automatically return themselves to centers for maintenance or take a different route based on current orders.
Of course, it’s also a lot to demand of a flying car. However, Vahana is progressing along a successful development program. In early 2018, the Vahana prototype had its first successful full-scale flight test. It wasn’t much—the 20-foot aircraft simply rose 16 feet into the air, and stayed there for 53 seconds. However, it did this entirely with the autopilot technology, and Airbus is planning on future tests for moving forward and other basic maneuvers.
Kitty Hawk’s flying prototype
Kitty Hawk’s CEO, Sebastian Thrun, claims that flying their latest prototype is, “As easy to use as playing Minecraft,” so we’re already sold—plus this also means there’s currently no pilot’s license required to drive it. The latest prototype, appropriately called “Flyer,” is a 250-pound model created by the startup to show off their ultralight design. Kitty Hawk, started by Thurn and Google cofounder Larry Page, plans on creating both a personal flying machine that’s largely for off-road fun (ultralight vehicles like this can’t fly over urban areas by law), and an air taxi for more urban environments. The small, drone-like personal flyer holds a lot of promise for those who want a quick and dirty flying car experience, but so far it’s only available for test flights on a lakeside training center
The Volocopter design is ambitious. It also looks really cool, a mini-copter designed for personal flight, featuring 18 rotors, controlled via a single joystick, and powered via electric batteries. We’d say that the whole thing isn’t very practical, but then they went ahead and made a full-sized test model and ran it across the stage at CES 2018 thanks to a little sponsorship by Intel.
That makes this model another option that’s relatively close to hitting the market. However, it also appears to be largely recreational or limited to short taxi flights. The latest version has a flight time of 30 minutes and a range of 17 miles between charge centers. Intel’s work on the project includes complex tech, including four independent sensor units to control positioning, nine different electric battery packs with built-in redundancies, and even a parachute stowed on top of the vehicle is something goes wrong. It’s no wonder Volocopter is Dubai’s latest pick for their upcoming air taxi force (although Dubai has dumped other prototypes in the past, so it’s not a guaranteed deal).
The SureFly is a robust, heavy-duty VTOL that’s aimed at commercial services and personal consumers looking for a durable, self-controlled flying experience — at around $ 200,000 per unit. It’s not just a concept model, either. The SureFly prototype spent a few days in early May 2018 making its first untethered test flights, which lasted up to 20 seconds at a time. The ideal final model of the SureFly will have a top speed of 70mph and a flight ceiling of 4000 feet. It’s also going to weigh around 1,100 pounds, so it’s no surprise that this VTOL eschews the popular electric battery model and finds power with a more traditional gasoline engine.
Coming from Canadian designer Opener, the BlackFly is a highly distinctive VTOL that combines personal piloting with a wealth of automatic features, including auto-landing and automated return to home functions, thus enabling flight without the need for formal licensing (a popular trend, as you may have noticed). Despite the design, BlackFly flies via a familiar method. Eight drone-like rotors are positioned across two wings. Taking off, however, is a bit more unique, as the VTOL is made to rock back and forth to literally pick up momentum to launch upward. Specs allow for a lengthy 40-mile range at 80mph, although regulations limit those numbers substantially for those who want to fly their own aerial vehicles.
The Passenger Drone
While Passenger Drone may be a pretty plain name for a flying car, it’s also very accurate. More than most of the ongoing projects, the 16-rotor Passenger Drone looks like a supersized battery-powered drone that’s designed for the urban scene and bypassing long miles of traffic. A couple other interesting things set the PD apart from other VTOLs, too. Instead of focusing on joysticks or traditional controls (although there is a manual joystick), the unit is designed to use a touchscreen that can be programmed with a specific destination. The VTOL then plans out the route and flies on its own, making it an ideal taxi service over a 20-mile range. And a snazzy design is always a plus!
The Transition is another hybrid model designed to convert between the road and the skies as needed, with retractable wings and wheels. But that’s not the only way that the Transition is a true hybrid model. It also uses a combination of gas and electric engines to help power the model, and a boost mode for an extra burst of speed when flying (which sounds a little dangerous to us, but what do we know). In the past, the Transition was expected to eventually sell at $ 280,000, but these days the company is refraining from providing a listed price.
When the Ehang 184 first showed up at CES a few years ago, it seemed pretty impossible – a personal quadcopter VTOL that was fully automated, totally safe, completely comfortable, and powered via a basic touchscreen interface that anyone can use. Frankly, it all seemed like so much vaporware with a bunch of claims that couldn’t really be substantiated. These days Ehang is still making some pretty crazy claims. For example, it’s hard to believe the company has tested its model over a thousand times in all types of situations (including gale force winds, with 500 pounds of extra weight, and so on), as they claim—the only test footage available is decidedly more pedestrian. After all, this sort of thing has happened before.
However, other details give us reason to believe that some version of the Ehang 184 will go into operation. Ehang has specified that each taxi will have a command center that will automatically ground the flying car in poor weather conditions, and that the models are primarily designed to flying in basic U-shapes from one port to another, which sounds much more in line with what other prototypes are capable of.
On the other hand, Ehang filed for U.S. bankruptcy protection in May of 2018. The move was called “strategic,” and the company is still in operation, but it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Joby Aviation’s air taxi
After working for years on personal aerial craft, Joby Aviation recently received a massive cash infusion from the likes of Toyota and Intel that provides $ 100 million to create an electric air taxi. This model is interesting, because it’s larger than many projects (able to seat up to five), and while it is called a VTOL, the model appears to be based on a more traditional aircraft with multiple propellers, which raises a lot of questions about how it’ll work in practice. Hopefully we will be able to see a real prototype before too long.
Boeing’s $ 2 million design contest
Boeing is really invested in the idea of flying cars, so much so that it created a GoFly $ 2 million design contest for design teams around the world to design just a really great flying car concept. The first round is already over, and 10 different teams have passed to the next stage, which means they will all be working on build a prototype of their design. You can check out the some of designs in question here, and just how crazy they are. There are hoverbikes, rotary models, UFO-shaped cars, alien-tastic hovering pods, and much more. We really hope that at least a couple of these prototypes end up functioning, and that we get to try them out.