Ryutaro Mori hopes to use the opening of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games to wow people around the world. If all goes to plan, a flying car built by his Cartivator group will swoop over the Olympic stadium and light the flame to mark the beginning of the XXXII Olympiad.
While Beijing set out to dazzle in 2008 and London opted for humour four years later – when Mr Bean played piano and “the Queen” parachuted into the arena – Japan intends to use technology as its theme for the biggest sporting extravaganza in the world, and a flying car would help it set the gold standard for opening ceremonies.
The Cartivator team faces a tough deadline if it is to rise to the occasion three years from now.
Even so, Mori is so confident of success he predicts that after the ceremony it will take his team just a further five years before it can launch the company’s first commercial flying cars in skies around the world.
“The world is increasingly urbanised, city traffic is getting worse and worse, roads are too expensive to build and maintain,” he said “In addition, the lack of road infrastructure has acted as a bottleneck for the economic development of developing nations. Flying cars will be one viable solution to these transportation and economic issues and will enable people to get from point A to point B faster than ever.”
WATCH: The cartivator
And the work that Mori and the 30-strong Cartivator team began in 2012 has made such progress that Toyota recently invested in the project. The car giant has agreed to invest 40 million yen (HK$2.8 million) in the effort, which was originally the brainchild of Tsubasa Nakamura, a Toyota engineer.
The Cartivator team, which consists solely of volunteers, has made progress on a shoestring budget and has raised cash online via crowdfunding sites. It has also attracted advice and assistance from drone experts and video game developers. The next goal is a manned test flight in 2018.
Operating out of a closed elementary school in Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, the team conducts experiments in the playground.
The single-seat version they are working on has a space-age look. The driver assumes a semi-reclining position beneath a clear canopy, with distinctive rounded “bumpers” protecting the blades of the rotors that get the vehicle airborne at the front and back.
This version is a major evolution from the original concept, and Mori admits the engineers have faced numerous hurdles, stability chief among them.
“The heavier the motors and propellers become, the slower their responses become. Consequently, it becomes difficult to control the attitude of the vehicle.”
Airborne vehicles were more susceptible to weather conditions, Mori said, and rotor noise must be minimised so as not to cause a disturbance. The third and most important concern is the safety of both drivers and people on the ground.
But when those problems are solved, Mori believes the sky is literally the limit.
“They are faster and the vertical take-off and landing means they do not require a runway,” he said. “There is less initial infrastructure required, while infrastructure for flying cars can be more cost-effective, particularly in sparsely populated areas.”
He said his all-electric eco-friendly flying car would be much cheaper to operate than a helicopter, and could help usher in a society free of commuter-related headaches.“The sky is three-dimensional, meaning there will be no traffic jams as long as the airspace is well controlled.
“If we can solve issues like noise, safety and accessibility, then we believe people will accept the idea of flying cars,” Mori said. “Aside from us, a number of companies and communities have been working closely to tackle those issues through technological and business model innovations.
“We believe people will see the social benefits of flying cars once those issues are solved through global collaboration,” he said.
Companies that have reached a similar conclusion about the future of personal travel include Uber Technologies, which announced in April that it plans a flying taxi service.
Similarly, the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus is planning to commence test flights on a flying car before the year is out, while a US start-up backed by Larry Page, one of the founders of Google, is aiming to launch The Flyer. The advantage that Cartivator has over its competitors is size; its vehicle would be the world’s smallest flying car, enabling people to take off and land in far more locations.
And while many have seemingly waited forever for the concept of a flying car to become a practical reality, Mori said Cartivator was fully committed to making its Olympic-sized deadline. ■