Is this the decade we finally achieve the dream of combining air travel and automobiles?
With the impending arrival of the driverless car, some may wonder if the 20th century dream of the flying car, widely disseminated in popular culture through media like the Jetsons cartoon and Back to The Future, has been abandoned.
Well fear not fellow futurists, the dream of a flying personal vehicle remains alive and well thanks to the secret, and not-so-secret, efforts of a handful of wealthy and visionary individuals.
Preeminent among them is Google co-founder Larry Page, who as Bloomberg recently reported, has been secretly funding two California startup companies, Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk, in a bid to be the first to truly master the flying car concept and bring it mainstream.
Both companies are located in close proximity to Google’s Mountain View, California headquarters, but have kept their projects and founder’s identity shrouded in mystery while also refuting any connection with Google.
According to Bloomberg, Page, whose employees at Zee.Aero refer to him cryptically as GUS (the guy upstairs), and who reportedly threatened to stop funding his companies should his affiliation become public, seems closest among a field of contenders to making the flying car a reality.
His company Kitty Hawk is working on a prototype that “resembles a giant version of a quadcopter drone” while two prototype designs by Zee.Aero have been released.
“Both have a narrow body, a bulbous cockpit with room for one person upfront, and a wing at the back. In industry lingo, the planes are pushers, with two propellers in the rear. One of the prototypes looks like a small conventional plane; the other has spots for small propellers along the main body, three per side,” according to the recent Bloomberg article.
The Kitty Hawk concept may not be too hard to imagine given that the Chinese company Ehang is also developing a quadcopter-like flying personal vehicle.
The EHang 184, a drone taxi in development by Ehang of China. Photo courtesy of EHang
According to the company, the EHang 184 is being designed as a single-passenger autonomous aerial vehicle (AAV) that will function like a taxi. Simply get in, and by using a smartphone app, the drone will take you where you want to go. Testing of the AAV is already scheduled for 2016 at Nevada’s unmanned aircraft systems testing site.
Page’s companies and EHang are by no means alone in their futuristic pursuit.
As far as true flying car designs go, companies such as Moller International, Pal-V Europe NV, Terrefugia, and Aeromobile have all actually flown prototypes with varying degrees of success, though most require runways for landing and takeoff.
Terrafugia, which claims to have developed the “first practical flying car” in its Transition model, also has a vision for flying cars capable of vertical lift, which would have the obvious benefit of not requiring a runway for takeoff and landing.
Terrafugia’s vision for the TF-X vertical liftoff flying car.
Vertical landing and takeoff technology (VTOL) is also a prize several other companies are trying to achieve in the personal luxury aircraft industry.
While very cool, these designs lack the “car” part of the flying car fantasy.
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E-Volo’s Volocopter in flight. Credit: © e-volo, by Nikolay Kazakov
According to Bloomberg, the availability of many of the various flying craft range from as soon as this year to 10 years or more. The Volocopter and Joby Aircraft’s S2 jet are set for launch dates this year. The Lilium Jet and AeroMobile 3.0 could be ready as soon as 2018-2019, while Terrafugia’s TF-X might not be ready until 2026.
While none seem anywhere near ready for large scale production or mass distribution, the dream of flying cars has been in the works for decades, and some might argue, it is an eventuality whose time simply has not yet arrived, but most certainly will.
As Henry Ford, godfather of the mass produced automobile and modern transportation famously said in 1940,
"Mark my words: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come."
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