Flying cars are the next big thing to sweep the aerospace industry

By Bloomberg | 05 Apr 2019 at 17:13hrs
Flying car
On 22 January 2019, a Boe­ing flying car designed to whisk pas­sengers over congested city streets and dodge skyscrapers completed its first test flight, offering a peek into the future of urban transportation that Boeing and others are seeking to shape.

A prototype of Boeing's autonomous passenger air vehicle completed a controlled takeoff, hover and landing during the test conducted in Manassas, Virginia, USA. Propelled by electricity, the model is designed for fully autonomous flight, with a range of as much as 50 miles, Boeing said.

The Chicago-based plane maker and arch rival Airbus SE are among a number of companies racing to stake a claim on flying cars and parcel-hauling drones, which have the potential to be the next big thing to sweep the aerospace industry. Boeing's push was boosted by a 2017 acquisition of Aurora Flight Sciences, whose projects include a new flying taxi it is developing with Uber Tech­nologies Inc. Boeing's CEO sees air-taxi prototype ready for takeoff next year.

Others are also rushing rotorcraft concepts to market. Vahana, the self-piloting air taxi developed by A3, Airbus's tech-centric Silicon Valley outpost, completed its first test flight last year.

Intel Corp. and EHang Inc. are also testing their flying vehicles. Morgan Stanley analysts, in their most bullish estimates, predict such technology could lead to a $2.9 trillion industry by 2040, while their most pessimistic view pegs the value at about $615 billion.

Boeing's urban air mobility arm, Boeing NeXt, enlisted Aurora to design and develop the prototype. While Boeing didn't say if the model is the one being developed for Uber, the ride-hailing company said separately that the vehicle was on track to be an air taxi on the planned Uber Air network.

Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles will be the first US cities in the aerial ride-sharing network, and commercial services may start by 2023, Uber said. Boeing NeXt's portfolio cargo air vehicle - designed to transport as much as 500 pounds - which completed its first indoor flight last year and is slated for outdoor testing this year.

Airbus on the prowl

Not to be left behind, Air­bus SE says its prototype flying taxi will take to the skies in the coming weeks after powering up for the first time towards the end of last year.

The CityAirbus will go on trial at the plane-maker's helicopter plant in Donauworth, Germany. Initial flights will be unmanned as Airbus seeks to establish the four-seat model's capabilities for full autonomy and focuses on tests that don't require a pilot.

Resembling a larger version of current hobby drones, the CityAirbus is designed to operate within urban environments at three times the speed of average road vehicles. The aircraft, which is propelled by electric motors and can take off and land vertically, could enter service as early as 2023.

Japan too is getting serious about flying cars. Ensuring Japan doesn't fall behind the technological curve has for decades been the job of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), a powerful agency housed in a squat modern office block in Tokyo's orderly government quarter, a few blocks south of the jagged moat surrounding the Imperial Palace.

The bureaucrats there guided Japan's post-war economic miracle, a boom that gave the world the transistor radio, the Walkman, and the Prius - and almost no transformative innovations since.

None of the automakers championed by METI are today on the leading edge of robotic driving. For the most part, Japan's faded tech companies can't lay claim to either smartphone or internet greatness.

Not long ago, the 33-year-old Fumiaki Ebihara began worrying from his desk inside METI that Japan risked being wedded to another antiquated practice: traveling on solid ground. The flying-car future is coming, he wagered, and Japan could realistically figure it out first.

He has since put himself at the centre of what might be the world's most comprehen­sive government effort to understand and encourage flying cars - defined as electric-powered vertical takeoff and land­ing vehicles that will ultimately be largely or fully autonomous - as a way to revamp everyday mobility.

This effort has so far pro­duced a national road map for flying-car development em­braced by industry leaders and set up a government structure to define and advance regula­tions. If all goes well, Ebihara believes the skies of Tokyo could be traversed with aerial taxis and delivery trucks by the late 2020s.

"Compared to other countries, Japan already has many of the strengths we'll need for flying cars," Ebihara said last November in an interview in the METI conference room.

Just behind him was a framed poster depicting a Boeing jet soaring above a Japanese temple, over the slogan "Made with Japan," a reminder that while the country makes few aircraft of its own, its aerospace industry is a significant provider of components for those assembled elsewhere.

"Mass production, materials science, battery technologies, systems integration - we have all the ingredients," Ebi­hara continued. "This is a big chance for us." The members of Japan's small, passionate flying-car community are mostly young, English-speaking, and dismissive of the sclerotic orthodoxies that have kept their country from seizing recent opportunities. They also believe they have a genuine shot to assume global leadership.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government, eager to reinvig­orate the economy and sell a fresh national image in time for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, says it is fully behind them.

But its recent record of providing a hospitable environment for disruptive ideas is abysmal, even when political will exists, contributing to lost decades of economic growth.

After Japan's decades-long domination of cars, China and the US, led by Tesla Inc., have streaked ahead in the biggest shift in the global auto indus­try: electrification.

Japan's flying-car advocates intend, in less than a decade, for it to be possible for anyone in Osaka or Sapporo to summon a flying Uber at the tap of a smartphone. Yet today it is difficult even to hail one on wheels. In fairness, relatively few government agencies anywhere have begun coming to grips with what it will take to regulate flying cars.

While Dubai, Singapore, and New Zealand have expressed similar intentions to be first movers - the latter entering a partnership with Google co-founder Larry Page's Kitty Hawk Corp - larger countries with more complex airspace are moving gradually.

The US Federal Aviation Administration told attendees at a flying-car summit convened in May 2018 by Uber Technologies Inc. that they may need to lower their expectations for the speed at which regulators would give the vehicles the green light. The same agency still has not finalised rules that would would allow drone operators to fly at night or above crowds.

In the UK, meanwhile, relatively liberal rules on drones have not translated into an enthusiasm for stuffing them with people. Even at METI, Japanese bureaucrats are a conservative bunch, and flying cars were a hard sell for Ebihara.

Japan might have greater-than-average incentives to move quickly. The country is regularly hit by earthquakes and typhoons that make pas­sage by road difficult or impossible.

The country is also extreme in geography, with well over 400 inhabited islands and hundreds of hard-to-reach al­pine villages. Navigating the congested cities on its four main landmasses by car is difficult: A drive from central Tokyo to the capital's main in­ternational airport, Narita, can take two hours.

The government unveiled its flying-car programme last August, with partners that included Boeing Co. and Airbus SE as well as domestic players such as Yamato Holdings Co., Japan's largest delivery operation, and the carmaker Subaru - known at home not only for sensible station wagons but for its work assembling Apache attack helicopters.

Yet rather awkwardly for an ostensible effort to vault Japan to the forefront of the nascent flying-car industry, almost none of the Japanese participants is building or planning to build flying cars. Many of the relevant innovations will come from foreign companies: Airbus, Uber, and Bell Helicopter are all working on vertical takeoff and landing vehicles suitable for urban environments.

"It's not about being unwilling to challenge conven­tions, but you can't just sacrifice safety in the pursuit of convenience, especially in city centres," he added.

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