Has the thought of flying cars ever crossed your mind? You probably religated to the part of your brain dedicated to intergalactic travel and not something you and I are likely to experience in our live time.
Guess what? That future you dream of has already been here: the original flying car was invented in the 1930s, even before it became a major Hollywood film icon of the future in the ’40s and ’50s.
If you think about it literally, the concept of a flying car is basically a car that can fly. Airplanes can already be considered a version of flying cars if we focus on this similarity: cars and airplanes both have engines.
The first generation of airplanes used piston engines just like the ones found in cars. As a matter of fact, even to this day some airplanes still use a modernize piston engine.
There are many other similarities between cars and planes: For example, both cars and aircraft have some form of chassis structure to support their weight and enable movement which includes brake system, wheels, and tires, etc.
There are multiple instances of technology transfer between both industries that will intrigue you. One of the major ones is in the field of aerodynamics; a major characteristic in aircraft design, which was been well embraced by innovative car designers.
Aerodynamics can affect a car’s behavioral properties significantly. Things such as its fuel efficiency and maneuvering performance capability. The spoiler found on many sports cars is very similar to an aircraft wing except it creates a “downforce” instead of lift while increasing “coefficient of drag”. This contributes to a car’s handling capability in an incredible way.
Take a look at cars like the Viper ACR compared to the standard one as an excellent example. Another design characteristic is the use of carbon fiber in the chassis, body, and other components of a vehicle to reduce the weight of a car. Carbon fiber has been used in the aviation industry for decades.
Don’t forget about the control systems, such as drive by wire, that some automakers are now adopting. This control system is known as the fly by wire in the aviation industry, and it has been used on fighter jets since the ’70s. I can keep going on and on about how intertwined both industries are. This should help you realize how the automotive and aerospace industry works hand in hand and how technologies flow between both industries. The topic today is about the realization of flying cars, so let’s get back on track.
Technically, the technology to bring flying cars into fruition has been around since the time of Waldo Waterman, who basically made the first flying car in 1937. Although this claim is debatable, the point is that the idea has been floating around for a long time and it is here to stay. The question is not if the technology exists or not, but rather is it practical to have a flying car. Both the automotive and aviation industry have their own separate board of regulations, which makes the idea of a flying car more difficult. Do you want a vehicle that can drive and fly or a vehicle that can just fly? Why drive anywhere if you can comfortably fly everywhere? This is where the idea of a VTOL comes in. Our idea of a flying car has evolved into a VTOL. Now you might ask yourself what is a VTOL? Well, let’s fall into another rabbit hole here if you don’t mind.
VTOL is an acronym for Vertical Take-Off and Landing. The concept of this vehicle is self-explanatory and that is to take off vertically and land vertically in the same spot without the need to generate lift via speed. This concept has actually been around for decades and the most commonly known VTOL is a helicopter. The technology of a VTOL has gone a long way and it has evolved from a combustion engine aircraft to a fully electrified aircraft known as the eVTOL. This is due to the major advancement and breakthrough of electric cars in the automotive industry and yes, as you may have guessed the “e” in the eVTOL stands for electric.
The eVTOL is mostly designed with a small fuselage and multiple main rotors up to the quantity of 8. This gives it more of a drone-like configuration and it can seat between 1 to 6 passengers. In comparison, a helicopter’s traditional design has one main rotor, one rear rotor, and a fuselage that can seat up to 15 people or more depending on size. One of the main merits of an eVTOL is the sound level. It uses an electric motor for its takeoff and landing instead of a combustion engine, and it is estimated that an eVTOL will have one fourth the noise level of a helicopter. This also eliminates complicated systems such as fuel systems and oil systems, which will eliminate some failure modes. This also significantly reduces the cost of maintenance. Most importantly, this reduces environmental pollution. Due to these merits, many major aerospace and automotive companies like Boeing, Airbus, Uber, Hyundai, and some startup companies like Kittyhawk, Joby Aviation, Lilium, and many more have shown interest and invested in eVTOL technology in the past decade. They are interested in the eVTOL for both commercial and private use. Don’t be surprised to see a production version available to the public in less than 5 years.
However, the technology faces its own challenges. It is not easy to certify a new aircraft with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) especially when the purpose is to have a mass-production aircraft for public use. There are potential safety concerns with having eVTOLs in the sky, currently drones are banned from flying in most locations for various reasons. Some companies are even planning to go as far as making the vehicle autonomous. We don’t even have fully autonomous cars yet, which makes applying this concept on the eVTOL a major challenge. Additionally, some companies like UBER, are aiming to introduce it to the taxi business.
Another challenge for the aircraft is cost. A lot of advanced technology is being poured into development feasibility and practicality. Battery technology may not be an issue since it has gone through a substantial advancement from the automotive industry. When you combine the cost of components like the battery system, multiple motors, and a complete carbon fiber body structure with high labor cost, the final product will be quite expensive, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel! Due to the advancement of technology, manufacturing processes are becoming cheaper as the industry progresses. It’s starting to catch up to the extent that we may see an eVTOL technology being manufactured for high volume production.