Edge of Innovation

Tomorrow’s flying cars might be less car, more drone

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

It’s been a couple of years since we talked about flying cars. In our original article we looked at a range of contenders who were tackling the idea in different ways.

The Terrafugia Transition, for example, is a ground vehicle with folding wings that transforms into a light aircraft. As it requires a 2,000 foot runway for takeoff and landing, it’s a arguably a plane first, car second.

This car-to-plane idea is also being pursued by AeroMobil and with a lot more style. The company has redesigned its flying car prototype for 2017 and the new version 4.0 is a teardrop-shaped roadster with a hybrid electric engine and fold-out wings. Recently on show at the Top Marques Monaco 2017 supercar show, prices start at EUR 1.2 million (£1 million).

Of course, the issue with the Terrafugia and AeroMobil concepts is that you need to drive to an airfield before you can take off in one. As good as the AeroMobil looks, it’s not quite the cool, vertical take off and landing (VTOL) sky car that fired collective imaginations in movies like Blade Runner and Back to the Future.

Which brings us to our next flying car approach.

Pal-V has started taking orders for what it calls “the first commercial flying car in the world.” Rather than convert into a plane, the company’s FAA- and EASA-approved Liberty Pioneer and Liberty Sport models convert from a three-wheeled motor into a helicopter-style gyroplane.

As gyroplanes, these Pal-V flying cars don’t have a VTOL capability either. They require a ‘space’ (aka runway) measuring 90-200 metres by 20 metres (100-650 feet by 60 feet) for take off. It’s a little closer to the dream of a flying car, cheaper too at around £425,000. But it’s unlikely to become a mass market vehicle.

That said, rotors seem to be the immediate future of flying car propulsion, so tomorrow’s flying cars might be less car, more drone. While the four-prop Moller Skycar has been trying to take flight for some years now, a number of new contenders have appeared, redefining our idea of what a flying car might be like.

They might not even be cars at all. At least, not in the sense that they can be driven on roads. Rather than be inspired by Henry Ford’s famous 1940 quote: “Mark my word: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming,” modern inventors are choosing this quote from Back to the Future instead.

“Roads?” says Doc Brown to Marty McFly. “Where we’re going we don’t need roads.”

After all, if the idea of a flying car is to avoid traffic-congested highways, why bother with roads at all? The Kitty Hawk Flyer recently took to the skies, the first step in its mission to “make the dream of personal flight a reality.” Less a car, the Flyer is essentially a sky bike — a drone you can ride.

Crucially, the Kitty Hawk prototype doesn’t need a pilot’s license to operate and it’s designed to be easy to fly. But even this might not represent the future of the flying car. For that we need to look at self-flying vehicles like the eHang 184 and the Lilium Jet.

The eHang 184 is an autonomous quadcopter passenger drone that looks set to enter service in Dubai — read Dubai passenger drone sparks dreams of futuristic transport. While the Lilium Jet is being described as the “world’s first electric vertical take off and landing jet.” With a 300 kilometre range and a 300km/h top speed, this futuristic pod could herald a new direction for personal transport.

So yes, the flying cars of the future might well be roadable planes like the AeroMobil. They might be roadable helicopters/gyroplanes like the Pal-V. But they’re much more likely to be self-piloting, all-electric, drone-inspired air taxis that will whisk people above the traffic at the speed of an Formula 1 car.

With advances in driverless cars and artificial intelligence, the advent of 5G networking and ever-increasing computing power, a flying car that can take off from your driveway (or communal landing pad) and fly you to work, is not as far-fetched as you might think.

Now, where’s that personal jetpack?

Main image via AeroMobil

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