Four-wing drive: Flying cars are taking off, but are we ready for them? - Hindustan Times

Four-wing drive: Flying cars are taking off, but are we ready for them?

Jul 21, 2023 06:20 PM IST

From China to Slovakia, permits are being issued, price tags discussed. Most flying cars are EVs, but where is the power to come from? And who will pilot them?

Science-fiction suggested we would have flying cars decades ago.

(Clockwise) The XPeng X2, Klein Vision AirCar and Embraer’s Eve are in various stages of development by companies based in China, Slovakia and Brazil. An estimated 250 companies worldwide are currently working on flying-car prototypes. PREMIUM
(Clockwise) The XPeng X2, Klein Vision AirCar and Embraer’s Eve are in various stages of development by companies based in China, Slovakia and Brazil. An estimated 250 companies worldwide are currently working on flying-car prototypes.

They were in Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985), set in the 1980s. In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), set in 2019 and based on Philip K Dick’s 1968 sci-fi classic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? They were in the animated series The Jetsons, created in the 1960s and set in 2062.

That last timeline might just check out.

Test flights, in the real world, are currently being conducted in China, Brazil, Slovakia, Japan and the US, among other countries.

This month, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted approvals to California-based start-up Alef Aeronautics to test its Model A, which can ply on roads and in the air. It has a sticker price of $299,999 (about 2.5 crore) and is due for release in 2025.

Two months earlier, in May, Eve Air Mobility, the flying-car division of Brazil-based aerospace company Embraer, successfully completed wind-tunnel tests for its flying vehicle, Eve. The company hopes to launch commercial operations for the flying taxi by 2026.

In late 2022, Xpeng Aeroht, the flying-car division of the Chinese company Xpeng Motors, was granted a “special flight permit” to begin testing its two-seater, X2, in the skies and on the roads of Guangzhou. The vehicle has a maximum flight time of 35 minutes and can reach speeds of up to 135 km/h.

In 2021, Slovakian company Klein Vision’s AirCar completed a 35-minute flight from the international airport in Piestany near Nitra to the international airport in Bratislava, a distance of about 80 km. This hybrid land-air car has wings that open out from the body in about 2.25 minutes. It will likely cost about $550,000 (about 4.5 crore), with two-, three- and four-seater options available.

Japanese company SkyDrive is working on the SD-05, which it plans to release as an air taxi during the World Exposition in Osaka in 2025. With a relatively low range of 15 km, the three-seater will have a top speed of 100km/h.

All these are electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles or eVTOLs, electricity being the only fuel that would be affordable on this scale. But merely arriving at this stage has raised fresh challenges.

First, how is a national grid to support a population with flying EVs, particularly given the growing popularity of non-flying EVs and the added strain that is already placing on power infrastructure? How is a carbon footprint of flying cars to be rationalised, without a more effective switch to renewable sources?

Second, how is such traffic to be safely regulated? Who will monitor the many, scattered lift-offs and landing? How will such traffic be regulated?

“There is still the ‘final mile’ challenge. Brazil’s power grids, for instance, aren’t prepared for the charging needs of electric flying cars,” Luiz Mauad, vice-president of services and operations solutions at Eve Air Mobility, said at a press conference in June.

Finally, who will fly the cars? Currently, manual and autonomous or “driverless” flying systems are being tested, but most companies expect to launch initially not as a retail product open to the public at large, but as flying taxis to be piloted by a well-trained few. This is why most are built to seat not one, but two, three and four people at a time. (The taxi model would go some way towards mitigating the high cost of the vehicles too.)

Eventually, other formats will likely emerge (rent, lease, charter?), as companies and regulatory bodies navigate this new space. According to consultancy McKinsey & Company, more than 250 companies worldwide are working to develop flying-car prototypes.

Some look like super-sized drones. Others seem inspired by single-engine aircraft. Still others do seem inspired by the Jetsons.

Keeping them light, fast and cheap means that most cannot fly very far; at least, not yet. But expanding power-generation capabilities and new traffic control systems — including altitude and direction norms, in a sort of invisible road network in the skies — could, over time, lead to the adoption of personal aerial vehicles.

How will companies and users keep the carbon footprint low enough to rationalise such a development, amid the climate crisis? Can we switch to renewable sources of power fast enough?

For now, all excitement hinges on the mere possibility of stepping into a small vehicle and flying to work. Financial services company Morgan Stanley estimates that the global flying-car market will be worth $1.5 trillion by 2040.

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    Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.

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