Science fiction set the stage, and now modern technology is close to creating a future in which a fleet of flying cars transports people through the sky just as Toyota Priuses and Honda Civics carry passengers on the roads today.
Last month, ride-sharing company Uber held its inaugural "Elevate Summit" in Dallas, announcing its plan to have an "urban aviation ecosystem" demonstration by 2020, in partnership with the cities of Dallas and Dubai. Plenty of hype surrounds this project and others, which are being marketed not only as the flying taxis of the future that would reduce commuting time but also as recreational vehicles, such as the Kitty Hawk Flyer, from Google co-founder Larry Page.
However, the three-year time frame presented by Uber is "ambitious," said David Oord, senior director of regulatory affairs at Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, an advocacy organization for aviation.
"They have the right people in the room, the right minds, the right funding and partnerships, but it will be a group effort of monumental scale," Oord told the Washington Examiner. He added: "Is it achievable? Yes."
There is little doubt that this form of air transport will happen one day, but the notion of seamless road-to-air transition likely won't be how the system would work, at least at first. While there are some projects, such as the Terrafugia TF-X, which would be a vehicle that could both drive and use turbine engines to take off and fly, most projects in the works would focus on flying only. Specifically, they would be electric vertical take-off and landing, or VTOL, aircraft, which would use a series of take-off and landing pads that would have a charging port, Oord explained.
That is what Uber has in mind, as prescribed in a nearly 100-page white paper released last year exploring "on-demand urban air transportation."
"The majority of the vehicles will never have an intention of being on the road," Oord said. But for those suddenly thinking that the new ground car they just bought was a bad choice, don't fret. Oord "totally" envisions a system in which VTOLs and ground cars work in tandem.
While there won't be as much regulation as there is for giant jet liners, Oord doesn't envision a "ubiquitous" Uber ride-sharing network similar to the fleet of Uber drivers taking to streets either. To fly one of these vehicles, one would need to obtain an airman certification. "Scalable" regulations would be needed to properly address the size of vehicles, while also taking into account the safety technology aboard, Oord said.
These VTOLs will be subject to regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration, the government agency in charge of civil aviation. The FAA has already laid the groundwork for take-off when it released the final version of its Part 23 rule late last year, which devised airworthiness standards for small aircraft weighing 19,000 pounds or less with 19 or fewer seats. The rule change, set to become effective in December, was created at the behest of the Small Airplane Revitalization Act of 2013. The legislation was introduced by bipartisan sponsors Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and former Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and later signed by former President Barack Obama.
The new standards were celebrated by the industry not only for facilitating efforts to create improved safety technology and keeping costs down but also for providing a boost to innovation that would make VTOLs possible.
"Without the new environment created by the Part 23 rule rewrite, there would be significant constraints and even some barriers for the types of technology discussed at this conference," said Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, which hosted the final day of the recent Uber summit. "New battery technology, new electronics, a better understanding of software, and new regulations like the Part 23/CS-23 rule will enable these projects to be successful."
Still on the horizon is how the FAA plans to handle air traffic control for in-car and remote pilots, as well as computer-driven technology. The agency says that it is taking a "flexible, risk-based approach" to air car technology, but emphasized that it is still in the early stages of developing a system.
"We have discussed certification projects with several manufacturers of aircraft that will be flown with a pilot in the beginning, then be converted to an autonomous passenger air car in the future," an FAA spokesperson told the Washington Examiner.
"These autonomous passenger air car concepts are still in their early stages of development," the spokesman added. "Several areas need further research, particularly identifying the operational risks, making sure the automation that 'flies' the autonomous vehicle is safe, and how the automation will interact with the air traffic control system."
Air car companies have other issues to address, including battery life and cost. Last month, for example, a flying car that can both drive and fly, was debuted by AeroMobil. The Slovakian company hopes to make its vehicle commercially available this year, and it is expected to cost between $1.3 million and $1.6 million. Compare that with the average cost of a car: $34,552 in April, according to Kelley Blue Book.
Noise, too, is a concern, even among air car supporters.
"There is a challenge with flying cars in that they'll be quite noisy. The wind-force generated will be very high," said Tesla's Elon Musk at a recent event. "Let's just say that if something's flying over your head, if there are a whole bunch of flying cars all over the place, that is not an anxiety-reducing situation."
Oord doesn't foresee this being a crippling issue, citing likely altitude restrictions and engines and turbines that when operating together will probably be "no louder than a car."