FLYING CARS COULD BE HERE SOONER THAN YOU THINK
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By Michelle Moore
From The Jetsons to Back to the Future, flying cars encapsulate our vision of what life in the future has in store for us. But much like touch screen televisions, hover-boards, robot vacuums and video chat, they are becoming part of our reality. You may be surprised to know that there are currently dozens of competing flying car companies out there today.
Some companies see flying cars as a wide-spread solution to heavy traffic in urban areas and the cumulative cost of lost time spent in traffic jams. Other companies simply see them as new and exciting vehicles desirable for a certain clientele. While many companies are still in the early phases of research and development or building and testing prototypes, one company expects we will see them in Canada as early as 2019.
In February 2017, Netherlands-based company PAL-V became the world's first flying car company to begin commercial production with the release of models Liberty Pioneer and Liberty Sport. The key to becoming the first on the scene was in designing a vehicle that followed existing transportation regulations rather than waiting for the regulatory bodies to catch up to their design.
On November 28, PAL-V was rated the best flying car company, when they were awarded the Innovation Leadership Award in the personal flying mobility market by Frost & Sullivan. The market research consulting firm published a statement comparing the effect they believe this innovation will have to the effect of the Ford Model T in 1908. Frost & Sullivan noted the use of proven technology and the application of existing regulations as some of their reasons for this choice.
The PAL-V can sit two passengers and requires a gyroplane license to drive in addition to a regular driver's license. It takes 5 to 10 minutes to convert from car to plane and vice-versa. In drive mode it has a range of 1315km and can fly for 4 and a half hours at a time. Unlike some of the other flying car designs, the PAL-V has Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) a little bit akin to a plane, rather than a Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) like a helicopter. It can fly as low as 500 feet in unregulated airspace which means you may not have to file a flight plan. But it will come equipped with all the navigation and communication tools a regular pilot would have as well.
When asked what the advantage of that design was, official distributor for PAL-V for Canada and the USA Mark Jennings Bates explained that the engineering and design team set out to make the safest vehicle possible. He said "if you take VTOL, what we know as a helicopter, they're actually very complex to fly, the learning curve is very different, the training is much more expensive and the amount of attention that you will need to move from driving a car to flying a helicopter is enormously complex compared to driving our car and then converting it to a gyroplane and so we really wanted to make it simple."
I spoke to Transport Canada's Senior Media Relations Advisor, Marie-Anyk Côté who said "from a design perspective, [flying car] manufacturers would have to demonstrate to Transport Canada that their flying car is safe and meets the requirements of the Canadian Aviation Regulations in order to obtain a certification."
She further specified that "they would also have to meet the same safety standards as other passenger cars while being used on the road. There are no plans to review the Canadian Aviation Regulations to address flying cars, as we speak. Nonetheless, when appropriate, Transport Canada reviews and updates the Canadian Aviation Regulations to ensure they best reflect the transportation reality of the time."
When asked when the PAL-V would get final approbation from Transport Canada and the American FAA, Bates explained that because they are based in the Netherlands they are a little further along with getting approval from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Bates said "we would anticipate what would be a 3 to 4 months lead time to then move from EASA to the FAA and typically Transport Canada will virtually mirror an FAA approval. We've had some cursory discussions with Transport Canada, so again they will have a few small criteria that they will apply to make sure we comply with their regulations."
Some flying car companies are hailing the end of traffic issues in metropolitan areas. About that Bates said "I don't see that being the big solution, I think what we do is we displace one problem, a terrestrial problem, to an aerial problem essentially." He cited an example he gave at a symposium he spoke at; "If you truly look at the traffic jam that you were probably stuck in going to that symposium on that day, imagine taking all of that traffic and taking two people at a time and putting them in a drone and then putting them above the convention centre flying all around Brooklyn, it's not a solution at all, it's a real annoyance and it's very dangerous."
Bates explained that rather than being for everyone, "the pal-v is for somebody who's taking those slightly longer journeys and who's looking for a door to door solution rather than a platform to platform solution." He also mentioned that there has been significant interest from government and security agencies as well as NGO's for large fleet orders. He explained that it might be an ideal solution for an agency like Doctors Without Borders who need to get to places that are challenging to access to provide services.
Also planning to be the first company to deliver a flying car to the commercial market in 2019 is Massachusetts-based company Terrafugia, founded in 2006 by a team of graduates of MIT. Terrafugia had their first prototype the Transition built in 2009, appear in Back in Time, a retrospective documentary about Back to the Future and the many futuristic inventions featured in the film that we now have today. The Transition requires a sports pilot license and short runway for takeoff. It is a two-seater, with foldable wings and a range of roughly 650km that can convert from car to plane or vice-versa in under one minute.
Their new model, the TF-X is a hybrid car they plan to mass-market in 2023. It has a VTOL design, a range of 800km and is designed to take off and land from any standard parking space. The goal is to have the TF-X require less flight training than a regular pilot license, or even the sports pilot license that the Transition model requires. Moreover, the TF-X would be largely self-driving. One would enter the destination and the TF-X would take off, land and drive to the location of their choice, though they would still have to fly the plane.
In 2016, the FAA approved Terrafugia's request for a weight limit exemption for the Transition allowing Terrafugia to market it as a Light Sport Aircraft. By contrast, the PAL-V is currently classified as a three wheeled vehicle in some jurisdictions. Classification by regulatory bodies can be tricky as they can differ not only from country to country but from state to state. In some cases an attempt is made to classify a vehicle according to existing regulations rather than write new regulations.
The Transition model is going through vehicle design and compliance testing, they plan to deliver the first vehicles within the next three years. On November 13 2017 Terrafugia became a wholly owned subsidiary of Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, a global automotive group. It is interesting to note that the new Chief Executive Officer of the Board of Directors Chris Jaran, was former Managing Director for Bell Helicopter China.
Self-driving car technology like the new TF-X is designed to use is becoming a more sought after. Google started their self-driving car project now called Waymo, back in 2009. Google cars use LIDAR, GPS and AI to drive on real city streets, highways and mountain roads, they have now gone more than 3 million miles with little human intervention. In April 2017, 500 self-driving hybrid minivans were made available for rides to the public in Phoenix. Meanwhile Google Co-Founder Larry Page has started a project for a VTOL flying car called Zee.Aero. Not many details are known but residents of Hollister California have reported seeing a flying car lift 25 feet off the ground, hover and go back down with increasing frequency over the last few months.
On November 30, General Motors announced they are launching a self-driving line in 2019, while Ford plans to launch theirs in 2021 even daring to remove the peddles and steering wheel. GM recently took reporters for a ride in their self-driving Cruise in the streets of San Francisco. Reportedly the test drives went smoothly, with the biggest discrepancy between the self-driving car and a human driver being a slightly longer reaction time. In 2019 GM will also be starting a ride-share service with this new line of self-driving cars.
Meanwhile, Uber is taking their own ride-share service up a notch, literally. Uber Elevate is a new project for a fleet of hybrid flying cars that will serve as an extension of the already popular ride-share service. One of the goals is to make flying cars a mainstream transportation option by making them available for taxi and ride sharing services. They also hope to alleviate traffic by taking to the skies and save people the hours they would spend in traffic on a weekly basis. Admittedly, the 98-page press release does make a lot of assumptions on the future of development for such things as battery technology and transport regulations.
Currently, regulatory bodies like the Transport Canada and the FAA do not actually allow for electric engines on helicopter-like vehicles. If the VTOL design is qualified as a helicopter, such regulations would have to be amended to allow Uber Elevate to operate their hybrid VTOL vehicles or eVTOL's. Then again, Transport Canada and the FAA may just have to write a new set of regulations to adapt to new vehicles rather than use existing regulation.
The other current issue with electric flying cars is that the weight to power ratio for batteries. A battery is a significant weight penalty for the aircraft which means needing more batteries to lift off the ground. It also means that as of yet it is impossible to put a person in an electric flying car. In September 2017, Dubai had the first test flight for their electric autonomous aerial taxi service. Like the design for Uber Elevate, it is a 2 passenger eVTOL taxi service, unlike Uber Elevate, it has no human pilot and cannot actually drive on the street. The self-driving aerial taxi built by German company Volocopter flew for about 5 minutes at 200 metres but was unmanned. There will need to be a big shift in battery technology before the first electric flying vehicles can really take off.
Uber Elevate plans to use a eVTOL design vehicle with certified pilots who would respond to a request for a ride the same way any other Uber driver would. Uber Elevate has partnered with real estate companies, aircraft manufacturers and electrical charger manufacturers and cities. Their first partners are the cities of Dallas-Fort Worth in the U.S. and Dubai in the U.A.E. As partners, the cities will host the first Uber Elevate Network demonstrations by 2020. This also means they will be working with local infrastructure to build vertiports, which are the equivalent of helipads for VTOL vehicles.
Because the project is in its early stages, there wasn't much information to share but Director of Fort Worth Aviation William Wellstead said "Fort Worth Airport System is excited about what Uber Elevate is doing in the area, and when the time comes we look forward to taking advantage of the opportunities that this new area of aviation industries may provide for us." He added that he is a huge proponent of Uber Elevate, and that he very much looks forward to being able to take his first ride.
It goes without saying that flying car companies will have to work alongside cities to develop regulations, and adapt local infrastructure to include vertiports and in the case of eVTOL vehicles, accessible electric charging stations. Smart city technology will certainly come into play as many cities have already drastically improved traffic using these tools.
In early 2017, San Diego started installing 3 200 smart sensors to improve traffic, parking and public safety; the installation should be complete by next year. The sensors direct drivers to open parking spaces, help first responders in emergencies, keep track of carbon emissions and pinpoint dangerous intersections. I spoke to Deputy Chief Officer of the city of San Diego David Graham, to talk about about how flying cars might fit into their smart city.
Graham said that "flying car technology is getting better, congestion is only getting worse and you can only build a highway so wide. So with the potential reality in California and now the option of the flying car, it fits into the suite of options for the city reducing congestion issues and perhaps delaying or not needing major infrastructure upgrades. I see the commuter potential for something like this; of taking a commute that could take 45 minutes and cutting that in half. All of those things are good for mobility and congestion management, for CO2 reduction, and improving quality of life through less time caught in traffic."
Graham talked about using a gradual approach to flying cars like what San Diego did with the advent of the electric car, explaining how "you can repurpose existing infrastructure as interest grows." He explained that at first flying cars could use the general aviation airports, then we could see some parking lots being converted or the tops of parking garages, and finally people might park them in their neighbourhood. He added that as soon as a vehicle is off the ground it's the FAA that handles regulations so from a city stand-point the most important factor would be take off and landing.
He also mentioned how a ride-share service or rental-car fleet could help people get familiarized and develop an understanding of the technology like the city initially did with electric cars. By doing this, he said "you move it from a hobbyest approach to something that has potential." When asked about regulation and airspace Graham explained that the city "has 20 airfields between military, general, and commercial airfields. If you're drawing safety zones for land use purposes that takes a lot off the table." That means the conflict between existing airfields and the space that would be taken up by flying cars would need to be resolved.
No longer the stuff of science fiction, flying cars may be an interesting new option for transportation in metropolitan areas experiencing increasing amounts of traffic, as well as for some people in rural areas. It also presents new possibilities for ambulance services and delivering aid to people affected by natural disasters and war. A lot has to be figured out first though, from regulations to batteries and the perfection of self-driving technology which seems almost synonymous with many flying car designs. Only the future can tell where flying cars will go, but that future seems to be closer than we may have thought.