Flying cars could be on the horizon
Washington — With the push of a button and wings that fold down, cars capable of driving at highway speeds might one day be able to turn into flying machines and leave all that ground-traffic behind.
In fact, one Massachusetts-based company says as soon as next year it will offer a hybrid vehicle that does just that. It says the vehicle — known as the Transition — will be capable of converting "from drive mode to flight mode in under a minute." The company behind it, Terrafugia Inc., was purchased last year by Volvo parent Zhejiang Geely Holding Group.
Other big-name companies also are getting in on the act.
Uber has selected Dallas and Los Angeles to test a vertical-takeoff and landing service known as uberAIR. It plans to run demonstrator flights in 2020 and begin commercial operations in 2023.
Additionally, aerospace company Airbus teamed with Italdesign to premiere a concept vehicle called the Pop.Up at the 2017 Geneva International Motor Show. A passenger capsule can disconnect from the four-wheel road unit and be lifted into the sky like a helicopter with eight counter-rotating rotors. Audi signed on to the project this year.
Anna Mracek Dietrich, co-founder and regulatory affairs representative of Terrafugia, said her company was founded in 2006 by five pilots "who all wanted to something in general aviation that's innovative that would make it easier to fly."
After testifying at a recent congressional hearing on "urban air mobility," Dietrich told The Detroit News she was pleasantly surprised by the reception she received from lawmakers. "It speaks to a lot of excitement and latent demand for vehicles that make aviation for personal mobility more attainable," she said.
Her testimony was delivered to the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which met last month to examine the regulation — and possibilities — of flying cars.
“For decades, flying cars have been the object of our imagination," said committee chairman U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. "They represent aspiration, innovation and the freedom of exploration."
He said advances in batteries and computers are providing companies "with the tools they need to turn science-fiction into science-fact.”
Auto industry observers are more skeptical.
"We have flying cars already. They're called helicopters," said Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "The problem is that they're way too expensive and the infrastructure isn't there for widespread use. But I can tell you that wealthy people in the New York area use helicopters for commuting."
Lindland acknowledged that major companies are exploring development of flying cars, but she said it will take a lot of work to make them affordable for mass-production.
"I'm not saying it's not going to come," she said. "We have the technology. We can build these things. The question is, can anybody afford it?"
Another complicating factor is air-traffic control. Access to airspace over the United States is strictly regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is still wrestling with the process of developing rules for unmanned drones.
Terrafugia's Dietrich said the company is working with FAA to determine what regulations would be needed. The rules would have to be "flexible enough, but focused on the safety intent," she said.
Eric Allison, head of aviation programs for Uber, said his company's plans call for multi-modal transportation in which passengers are transported on the ground to sky ports, where they can be pooled into vehicles capable of flying them to their destinations.
"We think it's an opportunity to improve the way people move around cities even more than we've already done where you can push a button to get where you want to go through the air," he said.
"Just like we pool right now with Uber Express, we'll pool people into these vehicles," Allison continued.
Allison said Uber's aerial vehicles will be operated by licensed pilots, at least initially. But he said "in the future, many people think autonomy can play a role."
He believes advancement in electric propulsion will make it possible to build aerial vehicles that are much cheaper than helicopters. And catching a ride on one wouldn't be much different than hailing an Uber with a cellphone app.
"You'll see an option pop up just like Uber X or Uber Black in certain markets," Allison said. "You'll have UberAir."