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The future I have been waiting for is here. But where are his flying cars?
A long-standing urban legend says that in 1885, when Karl Benz drove his Motorwagen – the first car in the world – on a public street in Manheim, Germany, a helmet witness to the event would have said to a friend, “Wow! Look at that thing! Wouldn’t it be great if he could fly?
Since the cars came into existence, it seems that the drivers have wanted their precious ones to be able to reach the air. In 1917, just 14 years after the Wright brothers’ first motorized flight, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss unveiled a winged, rear-engined car. He managed to make a few short jumps in the air, but he didn’t really take off. Years later, in 1949, following numerous abandoned prototypes and several fatal failures of the potential pioneers of flying machines, aerospace engineer Moulton “Molt” Taylor introduced to the world the Aerocar, an ostrich-camel that transformed from an airplane into a car in just 15 minutes, by disassembling and storing the wings and tail in a special compartment. The prototype worked smoothly, and in 1956 the US Civil Aeronautics Administration certified the Aerocar as navigable. Unfortunately, Taylor’s car never received enough orders to reach the mass production stage. Only six were built. They all exist now, and it is even said that three of them can still fly as on their first day.
Fast forward through time and videotapes to the final scenes of Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster in 1985, “Back to the Future,” eccentric scientist Doc Brown promises teens Marty McFly and Jennifer Parker to take them on a future in which there is no need for roads, because cars can fly. The year in question? 2015. As things stand today, it could be said that he was wrong for a maximum of ten years.
At the end of last month, AirCar, the flying machine developed by the Slovak company Klein Vision, received a green light to fly within the European Union (EU), along with planes, helicopters and drones. After 70 hours of in-flight testing and more than 200 successful take-offs and landings, the car has been certified by the Slovak Transport Authority and is valid throughout the EU. “AirCar certification opens the door to mass production of highly efficient flying machines. At the same time, it is the official and final confirmation of our ability to change medium-distance travel forever, ”says Stefan Klein, inventor, test pilot and head of the prototype development team.
AirCar is a two-seater, two-tonne dual-mode vehicle equipped with a 1.6-liter BMW petrol engine that can be transformed from a car into an aircraft at the push of a button. In the official tests, he made sharp turns of 45 degrees, reached maximum speeds of 190 kilometers per hour and covered in almost 35 minutes the almost 100 kilometers between Nitra and Bratislava airports. The company is now working on a model for mass production, which will be equipped with an ADEPT Airmotive engine and a variable pitch propeller, which Klein says will be able to reach speeds of 300 km / h and have a range of 1,000 kilometers. . It is expected to be certified in the next 12 months.
“We hope to make the first deliveries by 2023,” said Patrick Hessel, CEO of AeroMobil, also a Slovak company whose promise is “a supercar with superpowers that runs normally and is easy to drive.” . Like the rival AirCar, it is a convertible model, the transition from car to aircraft being done automatically, in just three minutes. Both can be driven on the roads, but require a pilot’s license to fly and a runway from which to take off and land. In theory, they are the kind of road aircraft designed especially for collectors and enthusiasts, rich, of exotic cars of the latest generation. In fact, AeroMobil’s retail price of about $ 1.2 million speaks for itself.
But there is another category of flying machines, considered much more complex and with greater potential in the long run: eVTOL (technology that allows vertical take-off and landing) completely autonomous, similar to drones, powered by electric or hybrid engines, which anyone can use them. “I’m not a fan of the flying car concept. I prefer autonomous air taxis. They make more sense. It eliminates human error in flight, frees up space for another passenger, takes off and lands vertically, and doesn’t take up much space in cities, “says Alex Zosel, co-founder of Volocopter GmbH, a German manufacturer partially funded by Daimler.
In September 2017, a prototype of an unmanned version of the company’s so-called autonomous air taxi (AAT) was successfully tested in Dubai, a city that hopes to have a fleet of unmanned flying taxis that, by 2030, will manage at least 25% of its total urban passenger traffic. “We expect to have the first trade routes in the next three to five years and a full coverage of mega-cities in the next 10-15 years. Then the journey by air taxi will be as normal as the one on the ground nowadays “, says Zosel.
By 2035, according to a study by the American consulting company Oliver Wyman, flying taxis could represent a market of over 35 billion dollars, covering between 60 and 90 cities around the world, especially crowded cities in Asia and from the two Americas. “Globally, almost 50 cities are currently considering the feasibility of mobile aerial urbanization, and most applications focus on freight drones, which will eventually open up the passenger vehicle market,” said Joe Praveen Vijayakumar. senior analyst at Frost & Sullivan.
Volocopter also has a functional eVTOL model in its portfolio, but it is not yet fully autonomous. VoloCity is 100% electric, has two seats and is controlled with a joystick. Equipped with 18 rotors and nine batteries, it can fly for up to 30 minutes at a speed of about 110 km / h, at altitudes of 300-400 meters.
Looking (subjectively) beyond market forecasts, Sam Bousfield, a former architect and private pilot, founder of Samson Sky, who designed and built the Switchblade flying machine, believes that “eVTOLs have a distinct disadvantage”. “They lack the infrastructure, the technology and the regulations – these are three huge obstacles. An approach on the model of functional land taxis only works if you have a place to land at the exact destination. And there aren’t many heliports right now. Instead, almost every city has an airport. And all the regulations for piloting an aircraft are already in place, ”said Bousfield, who hopes to sell Switchblade as a construction kit at a price of about $ 120,000 in its basic form.
In the camp of eVTOL supporters we find (and) the Chinese from EHang, a drone manufacturer that positions itself as “a big supporter of autonomous air vehicles (AAV)”, according to one of its spokespersons. The company unveiled its first AAV model for short-haul passenger air travel at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2016, and has since claimed thousands of hours of flight tests – many with human passengers – in China, the United States and Dubai. The proposed model is designed for fully automated flight; the passenger enters the desired destination on a screen and then presses a “take off” button. For now, it can fly up to ten miles or about 23 minutes. A two-passenger model is under development.
In mid-July 2021, Joby Aero Inc. – a California company in which Uber has invested 125 million dollars -, which develops a 100% electric air taxi for commercial passenger services, announced that it has successfully completed, with a single load, a flight of almost 260 kilometers, with take-off and vertical landing. “We managed to do something that many thought was impossible with today’s technology,” said JoeBen Bevirt, founder and CEO of Joby. Its flying taxi can carry a pilot and four passengers at speeds of up to 320 km / h and we would see it in an operational fleet by 2024. The company has already entered into a partnership with the multi-storey car park operator REEF Technology and the company Neighborhood Property Group (NPG) to build the infrastructure needed to operate its air taxis. “NPG and REEF have an unbeatable network of buildings throughout the United States, and we are excited to work with them to identify those that will become the backbone of our future service,” said Bevirt.
A network of air ports might seem like an extravagant idea at the moment, but the concept is well received by many US city administrations. Houston, Los Angeles and Orlando have already announced their readiness to create infrastructure for flying taxis and other similar vehicles. In the United States, a fleet of 4,000 AAVs could carry up to 80,000 passengers a day, according to a study by Booz consulting firm Allen Hamilton; which means a market of about $ 2.5 billion in just the first few years of operation. In the UK, the London government is supporting the construction of what is announced as the world’s first operational hub for air taxis and cargo drones in Coventry. Designed by Urban Air Port, a British company backed by Hyundai, it would become operational as early as this year.
But how far the flying cars will go depends on how the industry manages to overcome a few key obstacles. “These include public acceptance, high-volume production, investment in digital, energy, and physical infrastructure, and the development of a super-automated air traffic management system,” said Jennifer Richter, an American drone lawyer. air taxis. “Imagine regulating air traffic routes and then multiplying by a million.”
Seen from the perspective of this calculation, many of the predictions of the moment are still extremely optimistic. On the other hand, if we listen to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, flying cars are, in fact, a long way from us. “And they’re called helicopters.”