What a difference a name makes. “Up until two or three years ago, if I said I was developing a flying car people would laugh,” John Brown says. “Now, over the last year, suddenly everyone is taking us seriously. It’s the power of big brands to change attitudes.”
Brown is the owner of the German company Carplane, which is just as it sounds – it makes a car that flies, part of the next generation of personal flying vehicles that could revolutionise our conception of mobility. The brands he is referring to are the likes of Google, Skype and, most recently Uber, which this month announced that it had hired Mark Moore – Nasa engineer and long-time flying car exponent – to help develop just such a craft.
Carplane may well be ahead of the new interest being shown by these big guns – its vehicle, designed to use a short runway, is the first of its kind to receive certification for its prototype; and while it may not have the kind of budgets the tech giants have to play with, it has just won a 500,000 euros (HK$4.145 million) subsidy from the local government of Lower Saxony. “The fact that government is investing that kind of money in this kind of thing is a statement in itself,” Brown notes.
It is hardly surprising that Brown has, to date, faced a wall of scepticism. The first patent for a flying car was filed a century ago next year; Henry Ford tried to launch a flying car in 1926; Alfa Romeo developed one in the 1940s – all came to naught. Come the 1960s, The Jetsons, an animated US TV series set in the future, still proposed a personal flying vehicle as something just around the corner. Half a century on, it still hadn’t.
That may be about to change. Carplane is one of a number of niche companies developing their own take on personal aviation, each at varying distances from present reality – from vehicles that can be driven to your nearest runway to craft that might take off from your driveway, to those can be called on demand in the middle of a city.
Take Moller Aircraft’s Skycar, for example, the most futuristic looking of all proposals. It’s an ethanol-powered, 360km/h VTOL (vertical take-off/landing) craft with US$80 million and, so far, 50 patents behind it.
Terrafugia’s Transition is a similar idea to Carplane’s. New Zealand’s Martin Jetpack wants us to strap on, well, a jetpack.
Meanwhile, Chinese drone-maker EHang has recently announced that it is supplying Dubai with the world’s first person-carrying drone, a service set to operate from July – at up to an altitude of 3.5km for those brave, pioneering passengers. And Dutch manufacturer PAL-V has just started sales of its first commercial craft, a gyroplane-sports car hybrid, with deliveries due by the end of 2018.
“Our intent is to create a whole new industry between flying and driving, with a new customer,” says Robert Dingemanse, PAL-V’s CEO. “That will include pilots, of course, but also people who have never thought about becoming pilots themselves – they just see this type of vehicle as a solution to their transport problem.”
It is a problem. With more and more haulage on the roads, congestion has made transportation by car through built-up areas torturously slow, with average speeds dropping every year. While roads are clogged up, the barriers to access flight are coming down: to fly a vehicle in the category of Very Light Aircraft still requires a pilot’s licence, but one in the category of Light Sport Aircraft – introduced in the US just four years ago – requires a qualification that can the achieved in just 20 hours’ flight time.
New, lighter but stronger materials – the likes of carbon fibre – and better power plants are allowing new thinking in aircraft design too. There is also a cultural shift in attitudes.
If, as Robert Beluga, the founder of fan-based engine developers Trek Aerospace, has it, ideas of what a car is have evolved thanks to the advent of driverless cars, then ideas of what an aircraft is not necessarily large, commercial or for long distances may change too. “I think for trips longer than 1,200km we’re always going to use airliners, and for those ideas 200km it still makes most sense to use cars,” Brown says. “For everything in between these vehicles will allow you to get there faster and more conveniently.”
Of course, as with the vision of tomorrow proposed by The Jetsons, all this might not happen so quickly. “You don’t just need a pilot’s licence, you also need quarter of a million euros, so there are limitations to using early generations of this technology,” notes Brown of his own craft – although many ubiquitous technologies, mobile phones for instance, were only initially prohibitively expensive.
There will no doubt be regulatory issues – one reason Brown has pursued the thinking behind his car/plane is that it meets the regulatory framework already in place for both cars and light aircraft, making it, as it were, free for take-off; drone technology may not have such an easy time of it over built-up areas, not least because of the noise they make. There is the matter of infrastructure too – though, to draw a parallel, there are already more small airports in place than there were appropriate roads when cars first came onto the market.
But what of the other obvious concern: the possibility of the kind of crash that, quite unlike in a car, is more likely to be fatal? Sophisticated collision-avoidance autopilot technology is already available, but some in this fledgling industry have argued that all personal flying vehicles should also come fitted with a ballistic parachute, so should there be a mid-air bump the whole craft is parachuted to the ground.
Another manufacturer, AeroMobil, used just such a system successfully when a test flight over Slovenia went awry in 2014. Others argue that there is much more three-dimensional space up there than there is in the two-dimensional space of a road, where we accept the notion of one-tonne vehicles moving head-on at speed and missing each other by a few inches as a matter of course. Trust in personal aviation will come with familiarity, they say.
Which brings us back to Google, Skype and Uber. “We are going to see all sorts of different ‘flying cars’ for all sorts of needs, just as there are different kinds of cars for different uses. They’ll be niche products but they are going to happen. Flying will be much more accessible,” Brown insists. “And involvement by the likes of Google is going to help enormously. There’s a new sense that it’s not just bio-tech or AI that is seen as the cutting edge, but now it’s flying vehicles.”