Flying cars back in the race

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A flying car race has been launched but it is unsure which contestant will win this fight, or if there will be a winner at all.

There are a dozen firms trying to develop their own flying car by working on various concepts going from the flying-above-water-motorcycle from Kitty Hawk to the hybrid VTOL that can both fly or be driven on the road like Terrafugia’s Transition or Airbus and Italdesign’ Pop Up concept design, or the $1.3mn sports car with retractable wings from Slovakian Aeromobil. According to the companies’ schedule, VTOLs could start flying very soon, i.e. next July with the Chinese Ehang going over Dubai, or the German startup E-Volo planning on commercializing its Volocopter 2X in 2018.

Recently, Uber has appeared as the catalyst for the flying car sector. The company would need “between 500 and 1,000 flying cars for every big city, in 500 mega-cities like Dallas, Los Angeles, Singapore,” explained François Chopard, the founder of the start-up incubator Starburst and of the investment fund Starburst Ventures. According to him, this is a “multi-billion dollar market.” Uber wants to use electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles and held the Uber Elevate Summit in Dallas recently to gather flying cars’ companies and develop new partnerships with them.

Uber wants an eVTOL that can carry four people, fly at about 250km/h and enter service in 2023. The company estimates that the cost of each unit would be around $1 million and hopes to fly a prototype by 2020 in Dallas and Dubai. To reach this goal, it has partnered with companies like Embraer, valuing their “knowledge of certifying fly-by-wire aircraft, and their confidence that they can similarly bring fly-by-wire technology affordably to these much smaller” according to Mark Moore, formerly from NASA and Uber’s director of engineering in aviation. Partnerships also include Pipistrel, Mooney International Corp., Bell Helicopter or Aurora Flight Services which is developing an eVTOL based on the XV-24A LightningStrike high-speed VTOL it made for DARPA and which it flew as a quarter scale model.

François Chopard believes that other VTOL aircraft like Lilium or Airbus’ Vahana could fit Uber’s need as presented in the White Paper the company published in October 2016. The German start-up Lilium has completed the successful flight test of a small eVTOL that can fly up to 300km/h and is now working on a 5-seat vehicle. The company is supported by the ESA incubator and raised €10 million in December. They plan to commercialize their VTOL in 2018.

Meanwhile, Airbus’ A3 research centre has been developing Vahana and a quarter scale prototype has been tested. A final full-scale prototype is scheduled for 2020. Vahana is an autonomous aircraft, designed to detect and avoid any obstacle using radar with a range of about 1 km.

It seems like flying cars are becoming less of a science fiction dream, but there are still major issues to overcome before people can fly from one point to another in an air-taxi. On the one hand, the technology for batteries is not there yet. Most VTOL prototypes are powered by lithium-ion batteries which are “insufficient for long distances,” according to Uber’s White Paper, and they take too much time to charge, therefore having a limited use in the “high frequency of transport services.”

On the other hand, one of the biggest issues for flying cars lies in regulation. First, Uber believes that the certification process will cost between $150 and $300 million. Then, there is currently no air traffic control system that can allow flying cars. In addition, Rebecca MacPherson, former assistant chief counsel at the FAA said that one of the biggest problems for flying-car makers will be to comply both with FAA regulations and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regulations. And as regulations on drones are already behind the technical evolutions, it appears that it will take a lot of time for regulators to adapt legislation to flying cars. Uber could maybe bypass such issue by saying that its eVTOL is neither a car nor an aircraft, “it’s something else. It’s a flying car, which is new,” explained Steven Miller from Hanson Bridgett. But this is a long shot…

Pat Romano CEO of Chargepoint, a company providing charging stations for electric cars said, at the recent Uber Elevate Summit in Dallas. “This industry is going to be successful faster than anyone thinks … there is nothing like the passion that is unleashed on this.”



Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.