Flying cars on the horizon
Technology and Business
We investigate the world of flying vehicles and ask:
- What stage of development are these vehicles in right now?
- What will flying vehicles be used for?
- What will flying vehicles cost?
As the technology of transport continues to advance in surprising and innovate ways – from virtual test drives to autonomous buses and beyond – an unexpected question has arisen: will self-flying vehicles take off before self-driving vehicles?
Sebastian Thrun, Google VP turned CEO of flying vehicle start up Kitty Hawk, last year said that we can expect autonomy in the skies before it is delivered on our roads. Vertical take off and the relative scarcity of obstacles in our airspace means autonomous flight is somewhat simpler than autonomous navigation on roads where other cars, pedestrians, buildings and all sorts of unexpected objects must be avoided. Launching flying cars is surely the first step, and the race to do just that is proceeding apace.
Flying cars enter the testing phase
Just like driverless vehicles, flying vehicles have seemed more at home in the world of science fiction than in reality, but that is changing incredibly quickly. While no flying vehicle of this type is in operation just yet, plenty are in development with major manufacturers. Uber and Hyundai have recently paired up to develop a flying taxi, and have already completed and displayed models of their concept. Japanese company Sky Drive has launched the first manned test flight this year, and analysts with Morgan Stanley have recently predicted that flying taxis will be commonplace by 2040. Uber plans to beat that, committing to spend $1.5 billion (€1.27 billion) in the sector by 2025 and hoping to launch a flying taxi service as soon as 2023.
Though many tend to talk about ‘flying cars’, these vehicles, which bear little resemblance to common cars, are more accurately described as eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing). At the moment, an impressive 38% of eVTOL projects are in the flight-testing stage and several have now reached the stage where they’ll be certified by local and national authorities, just awaiting confirmation of whether they’ll be permitted for personal and commercial use. It’s not an entirely new concept – flying taxis were tested in Dubai back in 2017 – but eVTOLs look set to become a much more common sight over the next few years.
You want to know more about how this data could improve autonomous cars and their ability to do a better job at driving in the darkness than humans? Read our article "Prince of Darkness: Autonomous vehicles at night".
What will flying cars be used for?
We might have visions of fleets of flying taxis or dream of beating the traffic in our own flying vehicle, but most predict the reality will be a little different. The commercial market is likely to be the first to use flying vehicles in any major way. According to a 2020 report from Ehang, a world-leader in autonomous aerial vehicles (AAVs), logistics and shipping will dominate the market. Smart city management and aerial media solutions will play large roles too.
But we shouldn’t disregard the use case for passenger transportation. When up and running, flying taxi services like that proposed by Uber could offer exceptionally speedy service, without the price tag you might expect. According to Uber’s Eric Allison, they predict the service will cost around £4.24 (€ 4.68) per mile, just 64p (71 cents) more than the average London taxi. And with many willing to pay a premium to escape traffic even now, it seems likely that the service will take off.
What will flying cars cost?
That inevitably leads us onto the question of cost. Though the cost to ride in an eVTOL may be minimal, the cost of ownership ranges massively. According to Uswitch, a first-generation flying car could cost as little as £95,000 (€104,780) – about the same as a high-end Porsche – but this stretches upwards to £443,000 (€488,602) and beyond.
The look and feel of these flying vehicles cover a wide range too. Most still look a little drone-like at the moment, but some start ups are working on sleeker designs and many offer the ‘wheels and wings’ combination that’s been resting in our collective imagination.
Specification is another area where we can spot big differences. Where the 3-seater Terrafugia TF-X maxes out at 100mph (160km/h), the more expensive 4-seater Moller Skycar 400 can reach speeds of up to 330mph (531km/h). Price is inevitably linked to capability, as is the way with most forms of transport, but here there seems to exist more variation for similar products than in the case of autonomous road vehicles. Whether this will stabilise with time and the development of a secure market for the tech is yet to be seen.
So, are we ready to hop aboard flying taxis?
Just as we’ve seen with driverless cars, being interested in the development of a seemingly futuristic technology doesn’t necessarily mean we trust it. A 2019 study in which Deloitte asked a global focus group their thoughts on eVTOLs proved as much. A majority 80% had fears about their safety, but at the same time, 50% saw the tech as a viable solution to easing increasing congestion.
The development is certainly an interesting one and could present a solution to a whole host of transportation issues which stem from congestion and the limitations imposed by highway systems. But as the field develops, it will undoubtedly become more complex too. Though airspace is relatively easy to navigate right now, that cannot remain the same with a high volume of flying vehicles.
The development of autonomous flying transport will change the landscape once more, as might the increasing development of autonomous vehicles which can safely navigate our roads. Might passengers not feel safer on the ground than in the air, regardless of the technology behind their vehicle? Right now it is difficult to know, but we’re certainly interested to find out.
We always love to hear your thoughts. Would you be happy to hop aboard a flying taxi? Or do you think the tech is best used for commercial interests? Would you go so far as to buy your own? Let us know in the comments below.
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