Fly and drive

Flying cars
Flying cars

Fans of Minority Report (or even Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) will remember the crazy appeal of a flying car. But author Phillip K Dick was not the only one with a wild dream. Uber, Google Intel Transportation and Airbus, are already working hard to make that fantasy come true.

Why flying cars?

Why would anybody want a flying car? It’s not hard to understand. It’s because we are so earthbound. Humans have always been fascinated by the idea of being able to lift off and fly. But watching birds take off and fly offers science a few ideas for how we might do the same.

Apart from the sheer magic of flying, flying cars could reduce traffic jams. If you imagine 60% of us will be living in cities by 2030, we’ll need to fly to free up the roads. As Airbus says, we’ll “fly over traffic jams at the push of a button”.

One of its divisions, Urban Air Mobility, is already exploring a flying car for individuals and a kind of helicopter for a group of flyers. As always, you simply book one with an app.

Airbus' Urban Air Mobility CityAirbus
Airbus’ Urban Air Mobility CityAirbus, the magazine that loves all things tech, said flying cars will have to negotiate “already congested airspace”. So while flying cars could cut congestion on the road, they could just as easily create gridlock in the sky.

Drones fly and drive

Just as birds, insects and other animals can walk and fly, we ultimately need a machine that works efficiently on the ground and in the air. Not so simple.

The typical flying car is usually a car with wings. But cars are ground vehicles and they tend to be slower and more cumbersome than drones. Drones are fast and agile, but they’re pretty hopeless on the ground. Another problem is battery life, which is of course longer for a vehicle on the ground than one keeping itself in the air.

MIT researchers designed a system of eight quadcopter (four rotor) drones with two small motors on the wheels. Using algorithms to set their path through a simulation of the city, their battery-powered machine could both fly and drive efficiently.

Uber goes above

Uber (means “above” in German) already has ambitious plans to go above. It wants to run a network of flying cars in Dubai and Dallas-Fort Worth by 2020. These cars will be electric, take off and land vertically and, they say, fly 100 miles in 40 minutes. To serve three or four cities, Uber will need 1,000 aircraft and 83 vertiports with 12 charging spots in each one.

Uber Elevate Concept Air Taxi
Uber Elevate Concept Air Taxi

They don’t exist yet but Uber has signed deals with five companies it thinks will bring that dream alive. They’re not the only ones. Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, parent of Chinese carmaker Geely, recently bought US-based flying car maker Terrafugia.

Big potential

There’s more to flying cars than just enjoying the view. Drones that fly and drive could potentially get into more remote construction areas, tight spaces or disaster zones to rescue people. Or they could just help us avoid morning traffic on the way to work.

At the moment, even self-driving cars are looking a tad optimistic. So a self-driving flying car by 2020 might sound like excessively wishful thinking.

Until then, before you get to fly Uber over Dubai, you could just watch reruns of Minority Report.