Editor’s note: Another version of this article originally appeared in French on Challenges.fr.
“The Fifth Element,” Luc Besson’s mythical and futuristic film, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The 1997 film anchored the flying car in the popular imagination and planted expectations for the future. Similar cars have a long history in popular culture, notably in the 1985 film “Back to the Future” and Hanna-Barbera’s 1962 animated series “The Jetsons.” The concept can be traced back as early as 1917 when the Curtiss Autoplane, a hybrid car/plane, was invented by Glenn Curtiss. Prototypes from other inventors followed throughout the next few decades.
In the context today’s wave of innovations in autonomous and electric vehicles, drones, and artificial intelligence, the flying car has resurfaced, and significant investments are being made in United States, both inside and outside of Silicon Valley.
Why has the flying car returned?
At a time of explosive urban growth, improving traffic and urban transportation is becoming an essential issue. Meanwhile, technology billionaires are chasing investments to reorganize outdoor spaces with more efficient approaches that could accommodate new types of flying objects. The transition from science fiction to the near reality has already started.
Large companies, as well as startups
Companies like Toyota (Sky Drive project) and Airbus (Vahana project), with global footprints, have announced relatively short-term initiatives targeting the year 2020. There are about a dozen startups around the world that are actively pursuing flying car designs, and the majority of them are in the U.S. Elsewhere, there have been advancements in Europe, as well as China, which wants to take advantage of its existing lead in drones. Finally, in Russia the car manufacturer AvtoVAZ has a flying car project with Rostec, the state-owned technology company.
Airbus introduced the Pop.Up, a project designed from a capsule. The Pop.Up transforms into a sleek electric city car or drone taxi. In Japan, Toyota targets the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games to launch a flying car whose driver could light the famous torch.
Navigating megacities, while reducing pollution and noise
Independent air vehicles could very well shape the future of design for cities and — by reducing transit times and pollution — improve the urban experience. They will most likely be initially used for trips between cities, rather than within cities, since laws in this area are more flexible due to the low number of passengers.
The world now has 28 cities with more than 10 million inhabitants. There will be 41 of these megacities by 2030, according to United Nations estimates, and most of them will be in developing countries with a glaring lack of adequate infrastructure. This urban congestion will make the daily journey of city dwellers, already often stressful, all the more long and painful. This problem will only be compounded by pollution and associated noise pollution.
Flying cars could partially remedy these issues related to unprecedented urban growth. They could follow, for example, a network of several taxiways stacked horizontally in the air.
Startups in large groups are already working on these opportunities, and their first prototypes offer vivid insights into how the flying car of tomorrow could appear. It will be versatile, operating on roads, as well as in the air. It will use vertical takeoff and landing aircraft technology, similar to what helicopters use. It is a 100% electric vehicle, offering the advantage of polluting less and being less noisy than helicopters or small planes. Finally, the revolution of the flying cars will be carried out with autonomous vehicles, thus facilitating adoption by the general public.
Ultimately, such flying cars could lead to the establishment of a complete ecosystem with many players. Those participants include industrial and tech giants on one hand, focusing on the core technologies, vehicle, chassis, and design. A swarm of startups on the other hand will thrive as some critical components, such as seats and screens, are outsourced.
The ecosystem broadly will be supported by both private investment and ambitious public policies, which will enable implementation.
Every actor in the flying cars space still faces many challenges before fleet roll-outs and air-based taxi lanes become a reality. The first obstacle is legislation, since autonomous vehicles will have to pass demanding certification tests with American and European air authorities. In addition, there are technological challenges: designing more efficient batteries and lighter, more resistant materials; optimizing air traffic control; and improving vehicle efficiency, safety, costs, noise, performance, reliability, urban planning, and accessibility will be necessary.
Silicon Valley leaders and investors are already mobilized against the problems of urban and interurban traffic. Leveraging that interest to make the leap from ground-based to airborne cars, however, will require a decisive commitment and shift in vision across the private sector and governments at the federal and municipal levels. To get to that point, flying cars will need a broad consensus, and as of today that consensus is still not on the horizon.