Your Flying Car

By Carl Slaughter:  (1) Larry Page’s secret flying car project: “Welcome to Larry Page’s Secret Flying-Car Factories”.

In the handful of news articles that ensued, all the startup would say was that it wasn’t affiliated with Google or any other technology company. Then it stopped answering media inquiries altogether. Employees say they were even given wallet-size cards with instructions on how to deflect questions from reporters. After that, the only information that trickled out came from amateur pilots, who occasionally posted pictures of a strange-looking plane taking off from a nearby airport.

Turns out, Zee.Aero doesn’t belong to Google or its holding company, Alphabet. It belongs to Larry Page, Google’s co-founder. Page has personally funded Zee.Aero since its launch in 2010 while demanding that his involvement stay hidden from the public, according to 10 people with intimate knowledge of the company. Zee.Aero, however, is just one part of Page’s plan to usher in an age of personalized air travel, free from gridlocked streets and the cramped indignities of modern flight. Like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, Page is using his personal fortune to build the future of his childhood dreams.

Previously known patents registered by Zee.Aero show a craft that matches this description, with a thin central fuselage and twin rows of propellors like outriggers. The patent, filed in 2012, says the aircraft is capable of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) and is described as a “safe, quiet, easy to control, efficient and compact aircraft.” Not quite a flying car, then, but certainly a vision of personal aviation.

The other startup Page has been investing in, Kitty Hawk, has reportedly been building its own craft “that resembles a giant version of a quadcopter drone,” according to Bloomberg‘s sources. The startup is smaller than Zee.Aero, and kept separate from its older rival. Some of its engineers come from AeroVelo — a firm that previously won the $250,000 Sikorsky Prize in 2013 for building a human-powered helicopter that can stay aloft for more than a minute (see the video below). And Kitty Hawk wouldn’t be the first firm to design a quadcopter-inspired aircraft; similar concepts have been floated by Chinese firm Ehang and even built by lone engineers.

(2) Uber hires NASA engineer to develop flying car — “Uber hires NASA veteran to help it figure out flying cars”.

Mark Moore, a 30-year veteran of NASA, has left the aeronautics agency for a seemingly more terrestrial business: ride-hailing giant Uber. But Moore won’t be working on anything as boring as expanding Uber’s ground operation. According to Bloomberg, he will be working on the company’s nascent on-demand aviation service, also known as Uber’s flying car project.

To be sure, Moore won’t be building a flying car for Uber — at least not yet. Last October, the company released a white paper that envisioned a flying taxi service as a network of lightweight, electric aircraft that take off and land vertically from preexisting urban heliports and skyscraper rooftops. These VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing, pronounced vee-tol) aircraft would operate using fixed wings with tilt prop-rotors.

(3) Europeans take flight in cars. “Flying cars take off on French Riviera”.

Bratislava-based Aeromobil, whose first prototype presented two years ago suffered an accident, is back with a “new generation” of flying vehicle named after the firm which makes it.

“We are taking reservations from today for deliveries expected in 2020, after the process of (regulatory) approvals is completed,” the Slovak firm’s spokesman Stefan Vadocz told AFP.

The Aeromobil vehicle, six metres long and with a fully-deployed span of nine metres, is a normal four-wheeled car which can unfold its wings to transform itself into a plane able to fly two passengers at a cruising speed of 260 km/h for up to 750 kilometres.

Flying cars, that perennial dream for futurists that always seem to be at least five years away, may be a little closer to reality than we realize. A lot of prototypes have been showcased recently, and a lot of money is being tossed around. More people than ever seem to buy into the crazy notion that in the near future we’ll be buzzing between rooftops in private, autonomous drones. Today, Munich-based Lilium Aviation announced an important milestone: the first test flight of its all-electric, two-seater, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) prototype.

In a video provided by the Munich-based startup, the aircraft can be seen taking off vertically like a helicopter, and then accelerating into forward flight using wing-borne lift.


(4) China does passenger drones. “Passenger-Carrying EHang 184 Drone Unveiled At CES”

Imagine dressing for work, grabbing your lunch, and then hopping in a drone for your commute.

That is what Chinese company EHang imagines life could be like with its man-sized drone — although the company is light so far on evidence that it can actually pull it off.

(5) Forget flying cars, passenger drones are the future. “Forget Flying Cars: Passenger Drones May Be Hovering Soon at a Location Near You”

At first blush, human-carrying drones sound no more realistic than flying cars. Until recently inventors had never been able to marry automobiles and aircraft in a practical way. Yet a few companies have kept at it: Woburn, Mass.–based Terrafugia, for example, has since 2006 been developing Transition, a “roadable aircraft” that resembles a small airplane that can fold its wings and drive on roads. A personal flying car in every garage has proved to be a tough sell, however, and there are serious safety concerns about asking the average commuter to train for a pilot’s license and take to the skies.

Passenger drones, by contrast, would operate autonomously and leave the “roadable” part behind in favor of larger versions of aircraft that already exist. Chinese start-up EHANG last month announced it would debut its passenger drone service in Dubai in July. The EHANG184 autonomous aerial vehicle resembles an overgrown quadcopter with a passenger cab perched on top. Last October ride-hailing service Uber publicized its Elevate program for urban air transportation and announced support for companies building vehicles similar to the 184. Uber recently bolstered its plans by hiring Mark Moore, an aircraft engineer at NASA Langley Research Center and pioneer in vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft designs. Several other companies, including Joby Aviation and Silicon Valley start-ups Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk—the latter two backed by Google co-founder Larry Page—are racing to develop electric-powered VTOL aircraft that could help make Elevate a reality. Terrafugia likewise plans to eventually offer a VTOL flying vehicle—the TF-X—in addition to the Transition.

(6) Hover golf cart.  See a video report — “The Amazing Hovering Golf Cart of the Future”.

(7) Yes, but will it come with a parachute? “Flying cars may be poised to take off, but survey shows Americans want a parachute “.

As for takeoff and landing, most respondents — 83% — would prefer vertical launch to taking flight runway-style. (The survey didn’t ask, but earth-bound cars and truck drivers may feel even more strongly about it.)

Nearly 80% said a parachute would be “very” or “extremely” important.

Last Friday, the AeroMobil 3.0 prototype, recently featured in Popular Science’s 2015 Invention Awards, crashed during a flight test in Slovakia. When the flying car ran into trouble, its pilot, company co-founder Štefan Klein, deployed a whole-aircraft parachute, which slowed the descent and saved Klein’s life. But the impact on the ground seems to have destroyed the craft itself.

(8) Yes, but does it meet FAA standards? “FAA Gives Flying Car Prototype the Go-Ahead as a Light Sport Aircraft”.

The Terrafugia Transition is a prototype automobile-aircraft that is about the closest thing to a flying car that we have. It’s street legal and it can fly, and now the FAA has granted the Woburn, Massachusetts-based company exemption from weight and stall-speed limits so the Transition flying car can be certified as a light sport aircraft (LSA), according to Aviation Week.

(9) Never happen. “Man will never walk on the Moon.”  “Man will never have flying taxis.” “Uber’s Flying Car Ambitions Are Lofty And Ridiculous”.

So Uber is mostly skipping the car part, instead making a plane that takes off and lands like a helicopter, and designing it to fly from helipads. Helicopters–an existing, proven technology–already meet most of the needs for Uber’s planned flying machine, but they’re too slow for the commuter flights of 20 minutes or less that Uber wants from urban hubs to residential suburbs (or the downtown hubs of suburban areas). To meet this, Uber wants an aircraft that can fly between 150 mph and 200 mph. That’s speedier than all but the most cutting edge military helicopters, but within the range of VTOL aircraft–which is why Uber wants it to switch to flying like a plane once it’s off the ground. On top of all that, the company wants the vehicle to be all-electric, to keep down noise and emissions.

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19 thoughts on “Your Flying Car

  1. There have been plenty of “flying cars” built. None has ever been produced in any numbers because the divergent requirements of a roadable automobile and an aircraft have always resulted in compromised designs that are a combination of a lousy car and a lousy airplane.

  2. I still love that “80% think a parachute would be a good idea” statistic. What off earth do the other 20% want? (I am assuming that they think that the car should have the parachute, rather than, say, the passengers.)

    To be honest, I’d be a lot happier with automated/self-driving “flying cars” than with them on the roads; the extra manoeuvrability of a third dimension would almost certainly make them viable in a way that they just aren’t down here on the ground.

  3. (9) It’s easy to trot out “man will never walk on the moon” as a way to make fun of anyone else’s skepticism about anything; it’s also lazy and pointless, when what you’re making fun of is a much more specific argument that’s more analogous to “man will never walk on the moon if he insists on trying to get there using such-and-such technology that’s poorly suited to that task.”

    Also, they’re specifically criticizing a plan from Uber. There is no reason to think Uber knows any more than my cat about what is or isn’t feasible in aeronautical engineering (I mean, it’s true that they have a large amount of venture capital money with which to hire engineers, but then again, my cat hires me to “fly” him around in a cardboard box sometimes and has unrealistically high expectations of how often I’ll be willing to do so). They also have a rather poor track record when it comes to public safety, so I would much rather they leave the flying car business to someone else.

  4. David Brain: I still love that “80% think a parachute would be a good idea” statistic. What off earth do the other 20% want?

    Are flying cars going to be operating at a high enough altitude to make parachutes usable? At least, in the Jetsons and on Frank R. Paul covers they fly just a little higher than the buildings.

  5. @Mike: Clearly what’s needed is a powerful rocket to fling the passengers up to a higher altitude from which they can safely parachute down. Although if their car is tumbling when this happens, it might instead fire them into the side of the nearest building, or directly into the ground…

  6. This was very well done. Does Carl Slaughter post in comments? Never saw him.

    Looking forward to youtube videos of cops chasing criminals in flying cars

  7. Looking forward to youtube videos of cops chasing criminals in flying cars

    I think you’ll have to settle for this for a while.

  8. Eli: Although if their car is tumbling when this happens, it might instead fire them into the side of the nearest building, or directly into the ground…

    That would be the Acme brand rescue rockets, no doubt.

  9. I don’t know if it is a translation issue, but surely the Lilium Jet has none of the attributes of a jet, and all of the attributes of an aircraft propelled by ducted fans?
    Looks like a relatively efficient way to get VTOL while cruising as an airplane.

  10. This was very well done. Does Carl Slaughter post in comments? Never saw him.

    Thanks for the compliment. I seldom post in the comments. I usually pour everything I have into the original post.

  11. @Mike:

    Are flying cars going to be operating at a high enough altitude to make parachutes usable? At least, in the Jetsons and on Frank R. Paul covers they fly just a little higher than the buildings.

    OK, this is a very good point. Some sort of wearable airbag thing would work better, wouldn’t it?

  12. David:

    Some sort of wearable airbag thing would work better, wouldn’t it?

    Neal Stephenson have you covered – he describes an airbag-like coverall in Snow Crash. As it’s described there it’s designed for skateboarding, but in the novel a character successfully escapes a lowflying helicopter with it – in other words it’s just what’s needed here.

    And wearable airbags are not just science fiction – an airbag bike helmet exists. You wear it as a collar, and if the built-in sensor detects a collision the collar inflates into a helmet covering your head. Scaling it up to a full-body suit does does not seem to be dramatically more unrealistic than getting these flying cars from prototype to usable transportation. Although it would have to be scaled up quite a lot before I’d want to fall from 50 m height with it.

  13. Didn’t the Mars rover landers use an all-round airbag to basically bounce safely to a stop?

  14. “OK, this is a very good point. Some sort of wearable airbag thing would work better, wouldn’t it?”

    Make it REALLY bouncy!

  15. @Errolwi: re “jet”, that was exactly my reaction.

    @Mike/Eli re parachutes: a parachute will decelerate something very quickly — once it is deployed. I suspect that a parachute expelled as airbags are, instead of being dragged open by moving air, could deploy fast enough to be helpful; however, it would have to deploy almost as soon as the car started falling, because abrupt deceleration (due to sudden deployment) from 100+ mph could also be dangerous. (Sport parachutes are designed to distribute this deceleration — by increasing the time to fully open.) My SWAG is that a simple airbag would not be enough; IIRC (wrt @Mark) the Mars probes decelerated first, then used airbags to simplify landing, where a car falling from 400 feet (less than half the height of some skyscrapers when The Jetsons came out) could be doing >100mph when it hit, which is a lot of shock to absorb. (That’s ignoring drag — I don’t know how much these cars weigh.)
    The VTOL versions do have one advantage over lightplanes and earlier versions of flying cars: you can set down almost anywhere if the weather is too bad to continue. OTOH, that depends on the driver/pilot having the sense to do so; if you think drones are causing trouble, just wait until people start thinking “I can get through that cloud in just a few seconds” anywhere near an airport.

    @David Brain: the third dimension comes with a huge penalty: loss of traction. A car on the ground, moving at a good speed, can still jink around an obstacle in a very short distance; that’s not possible when you have only air to push against.

    A lot of the flying-car talk feels to me like older SF, which shows little sign of having worked out just how much energy (total impulse(?) and how fast it was released) ground-to-orbit required versus what chemistry/physics can do, and accordingly thought that getting to space en masse would be much simpler than it turned out to be.

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