Will we ever see the flying car?

Jamie Stevenson
London 51° 30' 23.112" N, -0° 7' 37.956" E" E

As excitement continues to build over the future of autonomous vehicles, the concept of the flying car has become almost antiquated – a pop culture-infused joke restricted to references to The Jetsons or, for those with more discerning taste, The Fifth Element. Yet, thanks to some deeply ambitious companies, this fantastical idea may finally have lift off.

Over the past few years, the flying car has taken a backseat to driverless vehicles, both in terms of development and hype. Frankly, it's unlikely that this is going to change over the next few years as autonomous vehicles play an increasingly prevalent role in our lives, while flying cars still seem, well, a bit ridiculous.

That said, there are signs that the flying car may not be as laughably far-fetched as we may think. At CES last year, the Ehang 184 was exhibited and described as 'the safest, smartest, and eco-friendly low altitude autonomous aerial vehicle.' Ehang, a Chinese dronemaker, developed the 184 as more a manned drone than a flying car.

Indeed, the vehicle -- an eight rotor aircraft which can accommodate one person -- mixes autonomous and drone tech to lift the passenger 500 metres into the air, with the option for remote override should any issues occur.

While the Ehang 184's initial introduction to the world was met with a fair degree of scepticism, the company looks set to confound its doubters, with recent claims that it's now almost ready to begin operation (pending the stupendous amount of red tape required to allow a flying vehicle to occupy airspace).

So, what are Ehang's plans, now that they've ushered in the brave new world of flying cars? First, it's to Uber-ise them -- selling them as a service so that, should you literally need a lift home, the 184 is ready to sweep you off your feet. And yes, this may sound a bit pie-in-the-sky, but Ehang isn't the only company with its head in the clouds.

Sky-bound

There are signs that we should start to take the flying car more seriously, however, with industry big-hitters investing heavily in Kitty Hawk, a start-up whose first product is, you guessed it, a flying vehicle.

Not quite a car (it looks more like an airborne jet ski), the imaginatively named Flyer was recently demonstrated, with its one rider able to hover noisily over a body of water. The 'all-electric aircraft' apparently won't require a pilot's license to fly, resulting in an industry-wide intake of breath for insurance companies.

That said, the insistence that this is a prototype probably means that talks with governing bodies are still very much underway, while the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) will likely have its hands full over the next few years as more and more flying car concepts inch closer to reality.

Indeed, while the initial video for the Flyer is both a test and an advertisement, consumer versions of the vehicle are set to be launched later this year. By this time, however, Kitty Hawk could be facing a crowded marketplace, with Airbus unveiling its own concept, and Uber also releasing a white paper that lays bare its ambitions. According to a recent report in the FT, there are already more than 40 companies developing small "vertical take-off and landing" aircraft which don't need runways or airports.

So, in answer to the article's titular question: yes, we likely will see a flying car in the very near future. This could be a very good thing -- helping to alleviate traffic congestion and, thus, reducing harmful emissions. There's never been a better time, either, with electric vehicle capabilities, autonomous features and the development of IoT all able to drive never-before-seen innovation in the flying car.

The flip side, however, is that the flying car is still a concept, and that the reality will likely be vastly different to what we imagine. Forget the Fifth Element, this will be a sky populated with large, occupied drones, and even this is a long, long way away, with the safety and compliance issues surrounding flying cars absolutely dizzying.

So, while the flying car may be closer than ever before, its realisation is still a speck on the horizon.

Topics: Automotive, Autonomous cars, Autonomous World, Features, Weekend reads

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