Flying cars might actually be part of our lives in a decade or so. Cutting-edge technology might turn that long disparaged science fiction dream a reality.
A combination of better-batteries, drone technology, blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and light-weight next-generation materials can be combined to create a working flying car right now. Several gigantic companies including Boeing (NYSE: BA), Daimler AG (ETR: DAI), Tencent Holdings (HKG: 0700), and Uber are working on passenger carrying drones known as autonomous aerial vehicles (AAVs).
At least one unicorn; Germany’s Lilium, has a working prototype for such an aircraft that uses electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) technology right now. Lilium tested its electric jet-powered vehicle last year and even posted video of it on YouTube.
Lilium’s vehicles use electric-powered jets to take off and land much like the famed Harrier jets once flown by Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. The difference is that Lilium claims its jets are quiet enough to be used in urban areas. Two of Lilium’s competitors; Hepard and Bartini, are using electric-powered fans or turbines to propel their AAVs.
How Drone Technology is Making Flying Cars a Reality
The theory behind today’s flying cars is actually pretty simple; the technology behind drones can be scaled up to create vehicles large enough to carry people or freight. Utilizing drone tech eliminates some of the limitations that have kept earlier VTOL vehicles; such as helicopters and Harriers, from being used in urban areas.
Using electric engines greatly reduces the noise, which is the biggest objection to helicopters. The lithium-ion battery technology that makes electric cars like the Tesla possible can provide enough power for a short-range aircraft. Today’s electric engines are so powerful they can lift and propel an aircraft.
Harnessing electric engines solves another problem by eliminating the need for highly-flammable jet fuel and aviation gas. This nearly eliminates fire danger and ends the need for tanks of aviation gas. Instead, all that is needed is a high-voltage charging rig like a Tesla Supercharger.
New composite materials make the AAVs far lighter so it takes less energy to lift one into the air and keep it there. This can offset the added weight of the lithium-ion batteries.
Why you Might ride in a drone soon
Robotics, remote-control, and artificial-intelligence alleviate another shortcoming of aircraft: the need for expert pilots.
Anybody who has ever driven on the freeway knows that a large percentage of people are incapable of safely operating an automobile. Turning those people lose in manually-operated flying vehicles would be utterly insane and dangerous.
Today’s AAVs solve that problem by turning operation totally over to autonomous systems. The same technology that makes autonomous trucks possible can be adapted to flying cars. Building an autonomous flying vehicle is actually easier than developing a self-driving car because the sky is bigger and emptier and easier to navigate than the streets.
Blockchain has the potential to solve the security and communications objections by creating a highly-secure and encrypted air traffic control network. Several organizations including Blockchain.aero a consortium of Russian companies are trying to create blockchain-based air-traffic control systems for autonomous vehicles.
Flying Drone Taxis Planned
Blockchain.aero is trying to develop an Uber-type solution that would allow people to hire flying cars.
Individuals would pay for flights with Blockchain.aero’s McFly a blockchain utility token. A Waves version of McFly is available now, and an Ethereum variant of it is scheduled for a Token Generation Event in April.
Lilium and Uber are also planning networks of flying taxis. The hope is to reduce traffic congestion and pollution by getting cars off the road. Traffic can be reduced because one flying cab can eliminate the need for dozens of car trips.
How Flying Cars can Reduce Traffic Congestion
Here’s how a flying cab would eliminate car trips. If the drive downtown took an hour, and a flying cab trip took ten minutes. The cab would have the potential to make six trips and carry about to 30 people. That’s not as efficient as a bus but still cuts traffic.
Flying cars might get some of the biggest creators of traffic congestion off the roads. That includes taxicabs, ambulances, delivery trucks, delivery vans, and police cars.
My guess is that FedEx (NYSE: FDX), UPS (NYSE: UPS) and Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) would be early adopters of eVTOL because of its capacity to speed up package delivery. An autonomous eVTOL carrying packages to a delivery person on foot; Segway scooter, or bicycle, would be more practical than a package-carrying drone.
A long-term benefit of effective flying-cab and delivery service would be to transform many surface streets into transit corridors. There would be more room on the surface for buses, light rail, and streetcars, which means more transit and even more traffic-congestion eliminated.
It would also lead to more walkable cities because more streets can be converted into pedestrian malls, parks, or walkways. That means New Urbanists might welcome the advent of the flying cab.
Flying Cars still far from Reality
Flying cars are still an unproven technology that is far from reality. As far as I know, nobody has actually flown in the current generations of AAVs. Lilium’s vehicle has flown under remote control but nobody has actually ridden in it.
There are also lots of other factors to be considered such as weather. Winds; such as the downdrafts around skyscrapers, might make urban too dangerous for AAVs. Rain, snow, and hail might also make it impossible to fly such light vehicles in some areas.
Public reaction is another barrier to that can stifle such technologies. Popular opposition blocked the use of helicopters for non-emergency uses in most urban areas.
Average citizens; who are already angry at income inequality, are likely to lash out at wealthy people flying over traffic in AAVs at the ballot box. Rich people in flying cars will make a natural and perhaps irresistible target for demagogic populist politicians.
Electricity use is another barrier, the public would be up in arms if a rich guy drained the grid and caused a blackout to juice up his flying car. Such vehicles might require massive capacity increases to the grid, which would be cost prohibitive. New power sources; such as hot fusion, small-scale nuclear reactors, or better fuel cells, might be needed.
An interesting side effect of eVTOL use would be greatly increased demand for electricity-storage batteries like the Tesla Powerpack, solar panels, and electricity generating technologies like fuel cells. Another would be to increase the demand for new sources of electricity.
Flying cars are not here yet, but eVTOL is a super-disruptive technology that is capable of changing many of our communities beyond recognition. Like the Hyperloop, eVTOL is technologically possible but not necessarily probable. Flying cars are definitely a technology to watch because of the potential to disrupt the entire transportation ecosystem and cities.