The Race around Flying Cars

Two movies presented their visions of flying cars, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element”. In the 1980’s and 90’s such type of vehicles looked as pure science fiction, but today’s drone technology make them perceived as achievable.

The difference between a helicopter and a drone is that the first is manned and the last unmanned. Drones started small; often used as toy, flying camera or military version. Of course, it was only a matter of time,  until companies built larger drones to transport humans, too. These vehicles can be controlled manually, remotely or fly autonomously.

Another difference between drones and helicopters is the propulsion. Drones don’t have open flaps like the helicopter, but use several vertical engines. This is no new idea, already back in 1959 the Avro Canada VZ-9 Avrocar had its first flight, using a comparable technology.

1959: Avro Canada VZ-91959: Avro Canada VZ-9.

In opposite to today’s drones, the VZ-9 had similar to a helicopter its sole engine in the middle of the vehicle. The two pilots positioned around this. As it was designed to fly, the project was first financed by the U.S. Air Force, but later handed over to the Army, who understand it more as a type of helicopter. Despite the futuristic design and the high hopes, the VZ-9 never achieved a stable flight, so that the project became officially cancelled in September 1961.

2017: Identified Flying Object, with friendly permission from Pierpablo Lazzarini2017: Identified Flying Object, with friendly permission from Pierpaolo Lazzarini

In 2017, the Italian designer Pierpaolo Lazzarini created for Jet Capsule the “Identified Flying Object”. It follows the VZ-9’s vision of a round design, but similar to a drone, has its eight electric turbo engines around the capsule. Besides these differences in design, today’s manned vehicles include intelligent software, which automatically stabilize the flight, this similar to hover boards. So it was a natural evolution for him to name his next flying creation Hover Coupe. This vision links the flying vehicle to a classic automobile, specifically Lazarrini took the  1919 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8 as inspiration. The Flying Car would be futuristic relaunch of the traditional Italian luxury brand, which in its times competed with Rolls Royce. Thanks to its four turbo-engines and specially fitted flaps, the Hover Coupe could fly vertically and also move forward.

2017: Hover Coupe, with friendly permission from Pierpaolo Lazzarini

Flying Cars look like a complete disruption of the car industry, but if we analyze the long-term relation, it is a continuous process. As Lazzarini Design’s claim: “Think about the future, never forget the past.” Tradition does not mean to stay in the past, but a tradition of progress is based on the company values (often derived from the founder) and fosters a continuous evolution. A focus on transportation includes different disruptive situations, such as the electric or even flying car, but at the end, they are part of the overall vision. In their early years many car manufacturers produced airplane engines, such as Isotta Fraschini, but also Alfa Romeo, BMW, Fiat, Rolls Royce and Saab. As the technology became more sophisticated, the car- and aviation-industry separated to move on into independent directions. Today, electric engines similar to the ones in airplanes and sophisticated software are the base for Drones and Flying Cars. A circle is closing and both industries meet again.

So far we saw concepts from the aviation company Airbus (Pop.Up designed by Italdesign), completely new players, but not yet from car manufacturers. If we understand individual transportation (for one until four passengers) as the core strength of the car industry, it would be surprising, if no company will take on this challenge. Elon Musk twittered in November 2017: “Not saying the next gen Roadster special upgrade package *will* definitely enable it to fly short hops, but maybe … Certainly possible. Just a question of safety. Rocket tech applied to a car opens up revolutionary possibilities.” But as CEO of the Boring Company he stated before that he sees the future of individual traffic not in the skies, but above earth, as for example inside a tunnel system under the city of Los Angeles. So it seems that Tesla is not interested in the Flying Car. And really later, in the beginning of February 2018, the meaning became clear, as a Tesla Roadster had been on board a Space X’s Falcon Heavy Rocket, and since then is flying through the Solar System. A priceless campaign for both, SpaceX and Tesla, as it confirmed Elon Musk’s ability to enter the space race, including the capabilities of the rocket, but also the self-engineered spacesuit. Even if, of course, the Roadster had not been the first electric car leaving earth, as already the NASA’s Lunar Roving Vehicle had an electric drive.

Tesla2018 Tesla Roadster with Spaceman, Public Domain.

Even if probably the Hover Coupe never get produced, Lazzarini understands his concept as a pointer for the automotive industry to show where the future could be, if they would focus on the actual drone technology.

At least Denis Villeneuve answered the question which company will go forward, as in “Blade Runner 2049” all Flying Cars came from Peugeot, even in the US, where the brand today is still not on the market. Before such technologies become reality, governments shall implement the required laws. Due to intelligent stabilizing software, the requirements for the driver are less than for an airplane pilot, nevertheless the vehicle moves in three dimensions and not only two as the traditional car. Due to this, it is more complex and in case of an accident can cause a higher damage. A different regulation topic applies for the self-driving mode. As the artificial pilot statistically is safer than the human driver, it would be preferred by insurances. Also thinkable is that by law the autonomous driver would have to be used inside the city borders and it would be only allowed to fly manually outside the settlements.

Based on its technical complexity and speed, Flying Cars will  be part of a network, especially using the Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X)-technology. The vehicle is equipped with a sender and can automatically detect other V2X-devices. These can be cars or any kind of infrastructure, like skyscrapers or virtual boundaries of a flying highway. Via Smart-phones, also pedestrians could be integrated into the V2X-network. Different countries and regions like the US, Europe and Japan, already reserved special frequencies for V2X. Manufacturers develop their individual solutions, which in this example are based on Magneti Marelli, include further sensors, cameras, radar and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). Especially inside cities and other defined regions, V2X-senders can define the allowed fight-routes (virtual highways). It is clear that even if the DeLorean was a Flying Car, Doc Brown’s famous quote “Where we’re going we don’t need roads” from “Back to the Future” not applies.



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