The flying car is no longer a mere fantasy magic: by mid-2019, more than $ 1 billion had been invested in at least 25 different aircraft companies. Vehicles take a variety of shapes: there are motorcycles mounted on huge rotor blades, quadcopter drones magnified to human scale, and miniature space ferries. Larry Page, founder and CEO of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, was among the first to recognize its potential and personally funded three companies: Zee Aero, Opener and Kitty Hawk. Old bikers like Boeing, Airbus, Embraer and Bell Helicopter will also take part in the race. For the first time in history, we have gone beyond the point where we talk about flying cars only as an opportunity.
And then there’s Uber, which would directly renew urban mobility with such vehicles. “Our goal is to introduce a whole new mode of transportation to the world, namely urban aviation. Uber aims to demonstrate flight capability in 2020 and to have full availability of airborne vehicles in Dallas and Los Angeles by 2023. “Finally, we want to get there to make car ownership and use economically irrational,” outlined the ambitious plans a few years ago by Jeff Holden, then product manager at Uber.
Let’s see the numbers! Today, the extra cost of owning a car – that is, not the purchase price, but all the expenses that come with the car (fuel, service, insurance, parking, etc.) – is 59 cents per passenger mile. In contrast, the helicopter makes 1 mile for about $ 8.93. According to Holden, for Uber Air to launch in 2020, the price per mile should be reduced to $ 5.73 and then reduced to $ 1.84 as soon as possible. However, the market could be covered by Uber’s long-term goal of 44 cents per mile – which would be cheaper than the cost of using a car.
In addition, we could expect very long distances. Uber is mainly interested in “electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles” (eVTOL for short). Many companies are developing eVTOL, but Uber has quite specific needs. In order for an eVTOL to meet the requirements of aircraft, it must be able to carry four more passengers in addition to the pilot at a speed of more than 240 kilometers per hour for three consecutive hours. While Uber envisions the shortest flight distance of 40 kilometers (between Malibu and downtown Los Angeles, for example), these requirements allow us to reach a single route from the northern half of San Diego to southern San Francisco.
Uber already has five partners who are committed to delivering eVTOL vehicles that meet the above specifications. But these vehicles alone do not make car ownership irrational. Uber has also partnered with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop an air traffic control system to coordinate their fleet. Architects and property developers have also been involved in designing a range of airports where passengers can get in and out. At Uber-ready airport, vehicles must be able to be recharged in 7 to 15 minutes and have thousands of take-offs and landings per hour (which means four thousand passengers) and the port must not occupy 3 acres, ie 110 × 110 meters larger area – this is small enough to fit on top of old parking garages or skyscrapers.
If all of this happens, by 2027, we could order an air telehandle just as easily as we do today with an Ubert. By 2030, urban aviation could be an obvious solution if we want to get from point A to point B.
Uber’s eVTOLs must meet three main areas: safety, noise, and price. Helicopters, which are currently most similar to flying cars, have been in use for eighty years, but are far from performing well in these three areas. Not only are they loud and expensive, but they also tend to crash. Then why are Bell, Uber, Airbus, Boeing and Embraer – to name a few – launching air taxis right now?
The answer is convergence. Helicopters are loud and dangerous because they use a single giant rotor to take off. Unfortunately, this single rotor emits exactly the deafening frequency at peak speeds that could drive anyone crazy right away. Plus, it’s dangerous because if the rotor fails, gravity will take control.
Now imagine using a lot of smaller rotors instead of a single main rotor – as if you were placing a series of small propellers under the wing of an airplane – which together generate enough buoyancy for flight but make much less noise. Moreover, imagine that this multi-rotor system can only fail elegantly and land safely even if multiple rotors cancel service at the same time. The design can also include a unique, unpaired wing that allows speeds of up to 240 kilometers per hour. It’s all a great idea – it’s just a bump that, because of the awful power-to-weight ratios, petrol-powered engines don’t make any of this possible.
This is where distributed electric propulsion (DEP) comes into play. Over the past decade, the demand for commercial and military drones has prompted robotics experts to envision a new type of electromagnetic motor that can carry light, completely silent, and heavy loads. In designing the engine, the engineers relied on a triad of converging technologies: first, the advancement in machine learning, which allowed infinitely complex flight simulations to be performed; then to breakthroughs in materials science to make flightable, lightweight and safety-resistant, durable parts; and finally, new manufacturing technologies, especially 3D printing, that can be used to make motors and rotors at any scale.
But getting the DEP system on the fly is a whole other story. The microsecond interval control of dozens of engines goes beyond the capabilities of human pilots. DEP systems are computer controlled. And what can provide that level of control? Another army of converging technologies. First, the artificial intelligence revolution gives us the computing and processing capacity to interpret large amounts of data in microseconds and to handle an army of electric motors and air traffic control surfaces in real time. Second, to capture this much data, the pilot’s eyes and ears must be replaced with sensors capable of processing multiple gigabits of information at once. These include satellite global positioning (GPS), laser-based remote sensing (LIDAR) and radar, a range of advanced visual imaging devices – several of which are the result of a decade of killing competition from smartphones.
Eventually, we will also need batteries. They have to endure long enough to overcome long-distance, that is, the fear of running low while on duty, and create enough energy — or, as engineers call it, power density — to lift the vehicle off the ground with the pilot and four passengers. together. Achieving this requires a minimum of 350 kilowatt hours per kilogram. Until now, this has been unattainable. However, thanks to the explosive development of solar energy and electric cars, there has been an increased demand for higher quality energy storage systems, which has brought the next generation of more efficient lithium-ion batteries.
For flying cars to become an everyday reality instead of a gentleman’s luxury, another triple convergence must take place. First, computer-aided design and simulation must achieve an appropriate level to design the wing profiles, wings, and airframes required for commercial aviation. At the same time, materials science must create carbon fiber compounds and complex metal alloys that are light enough to fly while also being durable for safety. Finally, 3D printers need to be fast enough to turn these new materials into usable parts, breaking all previous aircraft manufacturing records. In other words, we need to get to exactly where we are now.
The above article is an edited excerpt from Peter H. Diamandis, a futurist, and Steven Kotler, a science writer, The Future Will Be Here Faster Than We Think.