Commuting in the sky, George Jetson-style, might soon be within the reach of many. Some of the world’s wealthiest companies are backing some of the world’s brightest engineers to make flying taxis a reality sooner rather than later. The immense amount of capital needed to turn this 22nd century-esque concept into a reality is forcing automakers to forge unlikely alliances with each other. Porsche notably joined forces with Boeing to build a city-friendly aircraft.
Of course, no one is ready for flying cars quite yet. There’s no infrastructure to support them, and regulations are needed to govern their use (like personal drones, but 1,000 times worse). You won’t find the first vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles at a dealership. They’ll be part of taxi services created to shuttle people from one part of a city to another.
So, who’s working on making science fiction a reality? Let’s take a look.
Uber’s VTOL taxis
Of all the VTOL taxi projects, Uber’s is the biggest so far. The company targets 2023 as the year its service will first become commercially available, but we could see the first Uber Air taxis as soon as next year.
Uber’s had its eyes on air travel as early as 2016, and last year it committed to offering the first tests in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Dubai in 2020. The planned crafts look kind of like a modern miniaturized version of a turboprop plane, but with a key difference: They will take off and land from massive skyports placed throughout the cities they serve. Each plane will be capable of a speed of 150 mph and a range of about 60 miles on non-reserve power with one pilot and four passengers on board, and run completely on electric power using an automated system (although the pilot can take control in case of an issue).
Also cognizant of the footprint of the massive skyports necessary to take this to scale (executives expect 1,000 landings an hour), Uber is tapping top architects to design densely packed structures on plots of land as small as 1-2 acres.
Uber’s expansion is important because it gives us a good idea of the challenges involved in adopting flying cars around the world. For example, personal VTOLs just don’t function dependably in a city with lots of harsh weather, so Uber is limited to choosing cities with very mild conditions and little rain for safety reasons, as well as cities with the right shape and metro areas for air taxis. Uber also needs real estate partners and friendly governments so it can work through all the associated regulations. Since Uber’s ideal taxis will be electric in nature, the company also needs a very reliable, scalable electrical grid to work with. These requirements add up quickly, and show how much work these flying car entrepreneurs have ahead of them.
AeroMobil, based in Slovakia, is determined to making a functioning flying car. It’s on its fourth prototype, so you know it isn’t joking. All the prototypes are loosely known as the AeroMobil, and the first of the cars should ship to private owners in 2020.
The company has plenty of concept art to show how the car would work in its final form. It’s one of the more notable “hybrid” models, and we aren’t talking about fuel. Unlike true VTOLs, hybrid flying cars are often designed to take off from runways to gain flight, but also have the ability to revert to a more car-like shape that allows them to drive on roads. As you can tell, this requires both retractable wheels and wings, along with a very efficient fuel system. AeroMobil is hoping it can create a functional electronic model. The company partnered with notable organizations including Starburst, an aerospace “accelerator,” to help get its car to market ASAP.
Project Vahana, from Airbus, seeks to create an electric VTOL aircraft that is entirely self-piloted. There are a lot of advantages to the self-piloting model. It can save costs when it comes to hiring and training pilots (who typically expect a higher salary than a taxi driver), and software engineers already have plenty of experience creating autopilot system for larger planes that can be applied to these VTOLs. It’s also an ideal way to run a taxi service, since the cars can automatically return themselves to centers for maintenance or take a different route based on current orders.
In early 2018, the Vahana prototype had its first successful full-scale flight test. It wasn’t much — the 20-foot aircraft simply rose 16 feet into the air, and stayed there for 53 seconds. However, it did this entirely with the autopilot technology. Airbus has flown about 50 test flights since, and says its on track for a 2020 debut.
Kitty Hawk’s flying prototype
Kitty Hawk CEO Sebastian Thrun claims that flying its latest prototype is “as easy to use as playing Minecraft,” so we’re already sold. This also means there’s currently no pilot’s license required to drive it. The latest prototype, appropriately called Flyer, is a 250-pound model created by the startup to show off its ultralight design. Kitty Hawk, started by Thrun and Google cofounder Larry Page, plans on creating both a personal flying machine that’s largely for “off-road” fun (ultralight vehicles like this can’t fly over urban areas by law), and an air taxi for more urban environments. The small, drone-like personal flyer holds a lot of promise for those who want a quick and dirty flying car experience, but so far it’s only available for test flights at a lakeside training center.
The Volocopter 2X’s design is ambitious — and it looks really cool. Developed in Germany, it features 18 battery-powered rotors controlled via a single joystick. We’d say that the whole thing isn’t very practical, but the firm made a full-sized test model and ran it across the stage at CES 2018 thanks to a little sponsorship by Intel.
The 2X can carry two passengers; it has a flight time of 30 minutes, and a range of 17 miles between charge centers. Intel’s work on the project includes complex tech, such as four independent sensor units to control positioning, nine different electric battery packs with built-in redundancies, and even a parachute stowed on top of the vehicle in case something goes wrong. It’s no wonder Volocopter is Dubai’s latest pick for its upcoming air taxi fleet (although Dubai has dumped other prototypes in the past, so it’s not a guaranteed deal).
Volocopter showed off the 2X by taking it on a two-minute flight above Singapore in October 2019.
The SureFly is a robust VTOL aimed at commercial operators and consumers looking for a durable, self-controlled flying experience — and don’t mind paying around $200,000 per unit. It was developed by Workhorse, but the company sold its aviation division to Moog for $4 million in November 2019 after multi-million-dollar losses.
Digital Trends understands the SureFly’s development continues. It has eight propellers and a top speed of 75 mph. While, unlike other VTOLs, it operates on gasoline, a battery pack will provide an extra 10 minutes of flying time if necessary. The initial version will be able to carry about 400 pounds of cargo, although a more heavy-duty version capable of carrying up to 650 pounds is currently in development. Both have captured the American military’s attention.
The SureFly needs to be easy to operate, which is why most of the controls are automated. Just two controls are in the aircraft: A joystick to control direction and a throttle control on the pilot’s door.
Coming from Canadian firm Opener, the BlackFly is a highly distinctive VTOL that combines personal piloting with a wealth of automatic features, including auto-landing and automated return-home functions, thus enabling flight without the need for formal licensing (a popular trend, as you may have noticed). Despite the design, BlackFly flies via a familiar method. Eight drone-like rotors are positioned across two wings. Taking off, however, is a bit more unique, as the VTOL is made to rock back and forth to literally pick up momentum to launch upward. Specs allow for a lengthy 40-mile range at 72 mph, although regulations limit those numbers substantially for those who want to fly their own aerial vehicles.
What’s really special here is the promise of affordability and availability: The company is aiming to release its first crafts this year at roughly the same cost as an SUV. We’ll see if they’re able to do it; time is running out.
With retractable wings and wheels, the Transition is another hybrid model designed to be equally at home on the ground and in the skies. That’s not the only way that the Transition is a true hybrid model, however. It’s powered by a gasoline-electric hybrid drivetrain which features a boost mode for an extra burst of speed when flying. In the past, the Transition was expected to eventually sell at $280,000, but these days the company is refraining from providing a list price.
It sounds a little bit like a pipe dream, but keep in mind Terrafugia is now owned by Geely, a Chinese firm whose growing portfolio of brands includes Volvo, Lotus, the London Taxi Company, a roughly 10-percent stake in Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler, and half of the Smart city car brand. If anyone has pockets deep enough to build a flying car, it’s Geely.
When the Ehang 184 first showed up at CES, it seemed pretty impossible – a personal quadcopter VTOL that was fully automated, totally safe, completely comfortable, and powered via a basic touchscreen interface that anyone can use. Frankly, it all seemed like so much vaporware with a bunch of claims that couldn’t really be substantiated. These days, Ehang is still making some pretty crazy claims. For example, it’s hard to believe the company has tested its model more than a thousand times in all types of situations (including gale-force winds, with 500 pounds of extra weight, and so on), as they claim — the only test footage available is decidedly more pedestrian. After all, this sort of thing has happened before.
However, other details give us reason to believe that some version of the Ehang 184 will go into operation. Ehang has specified that each taxi will have a command center that will automatically ground the flying car in poor weather conditions, and that the models are primarily designed to fly in basic U-shapes from one port to another, which sounds much more in line with what other prototypes are capable of.
On the other hand, Ehang filed for bankruptcy in May 2018. It called the move strategic, and the company is still in operation — it filed a $100 million IPO in November 2019 — but it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Joby Aviation air taxi
After spending years working on personal aircrafts, Joby Aviation recently received a massive cash infusion from the likes of Toyota and Intel that provides $100 million to create an electric air taxi. This model is interesting, because it’s larger than many projects (able to seat up to five), and while it is called a VTOL, the model appears to be based on a more traditional aircraft with multiple propellers, which raises a lot of questions about how it’ll work in practice.
Jaunt Aviation’s helicopter-airplane hybrid
Newcomer Jaunt Aviation teamed up with the Triumph Group to develop a flying taxi that looks like a cross between a helicopter and a plane. The company plans to address one of the main concerns associated with helicopters: noise. Using proprietary technology, the aircraft reduces the speed of its main rotor while flying to remain relatively quiet.
Jaunt might not be a household name, but it’s one we’re watching. It has forged partnerships with some of the biggest companies in the business. Aviation Today reported Honeywell will provide a navigation software, flight control technology, and an electric propulsion system, among other pieces of the puzzle. Uber has already named the company as one of its manufacturing partners for urban air mobility vehicles.
Porsche-Boeing flying taxi
Porsche and Boeing linked arms to explore whether there’s a market for flying taxis. The partners have their work cut out; they first need to figure out what luxury looks like in this burgeoning sector, and how to deliver it profitably. An international team of engineers from both companies has started fine-tuning a concept previewed by a sketch of a sleek, winged vehicle with a wrap-around windshield. The project is still at the embryonic stage, so the final design could very well change, but the firms imagine a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle that’s fully electric, stylish, and innovative. They’re working on a prototype that will be tested in 2020, Digital Trends learned.
Hyundai created a flying taxi division in September 2019. The company hasn’t released a prototype yet, but it hired NASA veteran Dr. Jaiwon Shin to spearhead its entry into the segment. His expertise in the fields of electrification and advanced air traffic control could give the South Korean company an edge as it tries to leap ahead of rivals.
“The new team at Hyundai will develop core technologies that will establish the company as a driving force in urban air mobility, a sector that is expected to grow into a market worth $1.5 trillion within the next 20 years,”the company wrote in a statement.
Aston Martin Volante Vision
Even Aston Martin wants in. In 2018, the British sports car manufacturer introduced a design study named Volante Vision that offered space for three passengers arranged in a triangular configuration. The company noted Rolls-Royce (the plane maker, not the car maker — provided the Volante Vision’s powertrain but it stopped short of providing technical specifications. It’s worth noting no one has seen the Star Wars-esque aircraft fly, and Aston Martin has remained quiet about the project since publishing computer-generated images of the concept.
There are two companies operating under the Rolls-Royce name: one that makes plane engines, and a second that manufactures luxury cars. The latter hasn’t manifested an interest in the VTOL segment yet, but the former unveiled a concept in 2018 capable of carrying people, cargo, or both. The specifications sheet listed 500 miles of range and a 250-mph top speed thanks to a powertrain made up of gas turbine that generates electricity and feeds it to electric motors.
Rolls-Royce pointed out the hardware and software needed to bring its VTOL to life either already existed, or was under development. It hoped to begin carrying passengers in the early 2020s, but it hasn’t said much about the project since. The firm teamed up with Bell in March 2019 to develop VTOL powertrains, however.