Can a flying car become a reality?
Several companies are working on flying cars and prototypes have been built. But there may be legal and technological barriers to the world's first flying car.
Sleek, drone-like flying cars capable of lifting off vertically like a helicopter and flying like a plane could one day help solve urban transportation woes.
Trying to ease the congestion and pollution choking cities such as Tokyo and New York, many automakers and aircraft manufacturers are working on a variety of different designs, with some even planning to put them into limited production within the next decade.
There are, however, hurdles to overcome before flying cars become a reality.
How Do They Work?
Flying cars are complex machines that rely on aerodynamics, stealth technology, computers, and lithium-ion batteries for flight. Some, like the German Aeromobil, use regular aircraft engines, while others, like the California-based Terrafugia, use electric motors. Some, such as the Bell Nexus, are designed to automatically change course and altitude based on weather or other conditions, while others, such as the Germans Volocopter and AeroMobil, will need a remote pilot’s approval before take-off.
Developers and manufacturers are always trying to one-up each other and some firms have predicted they will be in production by the end of the decade, but legal and technological barriers may still be too big a hurdle for them to overcome.
First, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has outlined safety rules for operating any "motor vehicle, aircraft, or rotary-wing aircraft" that weigh more than or equal to 250 pounds (113 kilograms) when it goes on sale in the U.S.
That would make it illegal to fly a flying car above a height of 400 feet (122 meters), and in any U.S. state, flying cars would need to be registered and follow safety rules established for piloted aircraft.
Another obstacle could be pilot certification. Although the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected to oversee the nascent industry, the state-run Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB) is concerned about piloting skills, while the U.S. Transportation Department has yet to establish a single nationwide safety standard for flying cars.
Will They Be a Security Risk?
A key selling point of flying cars is their ability to avoid traffic and other traffic. But that could turn them into a potential security risk, if several small, unmanned flying vehicles, or drones, are crashed into each other or buildings.
They are not good for real-world scenarios, but they can be used as a stepping stone, said Terry Williams, a former U.S. naval aviator and aviation safety official. Imagine you have a cargo of drones being delivered to a nearby airport, and all of a sudden a bad guy comes in with a car and blocks the street, and they are all taken out.
What's Next for Companies
Smaller companies, like California-based Joby Aviation and Michigan-based Lilium Aviation, are leading the way in developing a single-person flying car.
Joby Aviation has conducted multiple flight tests with its autopilot-equipped flying car, dubbed "Gita" after a child in New Zealand, and hopes to put it into limited production in 2020.
German auto engineering company Voith is teaming up with Lilium and Israel's Elbit Systems to develop a two-seater flying car in collaboration with NASA's Ames Research Center.
Toyota, meanwhile, has invested heavily in the development of a concept called e-Palette, which is designed to be loaded with packages and transported by driverless vehicles.
Other companies, including Uber, Airbus, and Chinese drone maker Eh ang, are also working on their flying car concepts.