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Flying cars – will they ever take off?

Zoltan Maklary Principal

Zoltan Maklary | Principal, Melbourne | 18 August 2017

Since 1917 when Glenn Curtiss, who may well be known as the father of the flying car, unveiled the first attempt at such a vehicle, man has been obsessed with learning to fly – their car that is.

In 1940 Henry Ford stated “Mark my words: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come”. And Whilst Glenn didn’t quite get off the ground for more than a few seconds at a time, Henry was right, and the precedent had been set, the fire of possibility lit.

Far too often we have seen the ‘mad scientist’ or ‘backyard hero’ types shouting from the rooftops that their car will be ‘the one’ to fly. Rarely is there any substance to the claims, and though the appeal is obvious, and the media excitement palpable, the flash in the pan often dissipates just as quickly.

This was up until this year, when Airbus announced it will be ready to launch their first flying car – Project Vahana (a self-piloted personal aircraft) - by the end of 2017. While other large companies such as Boeing have dabbled in this, when there is a credible name and a defined date, the announcement has the market paying attention. Wait, you may say, since when are Airbus in the technology space? We have seen the market disruptors enter and we have also seen the diversification of innovation from a traditional market player into green fields – and this the case today.

The practicalities of this type of vehicle however is often overlooked, in place of headline grabbing statements and hype – so I thought we should reflect on some of the realities that must be considered before the flying car is even on our horizons. This is merely a small set of the factors which would need to be addressed:

  • Safety: and this is the big one. All aspects of safety including the air space controls that would be required, to the vehicle safety considerations, risk mitigation, reliability, accountability, etc. 
  • Practicality: you need a runway more often than not, or if it is a vertical take-off, then there are a whole other set of considerations, including safety, then there is the ease of use to be considered too.
  • Logistics/ Operations: everything from the airspace requirements, to the weight of vehicle, to the types of fuel required.
  • Regulatory environment: governments need to set the clear direction for where these vehicles are able to operate, and also what is off limits; what is defined as a vehicle in the air, what insurance requirements would there be, etc.
  • Affordability: as with electric vehicles, initial models are likely to be for the wealthy or commercial users only.
  • Public acceptance: education of the benefits of these vehicles over current public transport methods, along with clear plans to address risk will be required to gain wider public acceptance.

Whilst it may currently appear as pie in the sky, if these concerns can be addressed by an organisation and they produce a practical, safe, affordable option for a flying car, then the world is truly their oyster – as the market is wide open for innovation in transport. There would be many practical applications were these vehicle to take off, such as:

  • Law enforcement: for crowd control during riots, and ensuring public safety in large gatherings
  • Commuting: moving people around a city avoiding ground traffic
  • Medical supports: doctors and medics attending to accidents
  • Freight deliveries: moving or delivering goods efficiently from A to B
  • Port and other large site operations: moving freight around their sites, or investigating assets

There is still a good deal more work to be done before we see these flying cars. It is encouraging however, to see that serious players such as Airbus are entering the arena, as this means this future may become a reality sooner than we think.