Vehicle and aviation firms rush to bring futuristic technology to city skies

Updated 2017-12-01 13:31:56 Global Times

For metropolises that are infested with traffic jams, the emerging development of flying cars - vehicles that can drive on roads and fly in skies - provides a possible mobility solution.

To make this become a reality, domestic and overseas automobile and aviation companies are rushing to bring the technology to the market.

Zhejiang Geely Holding Group announced on November 13 that it acquired Boston-based fly-car firm Terrafugia with the aim of leveraging the synergies provided by its international operations and track record of innovation, helping to push the flying car into reality.

After completion of the deal, Geely will become the first Chinese company to master the core technology of the flying car.

Terrafugia plans to bring its first flying car to the market in 2019, followed by its first vehicle that embodies vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) in 2023, Geely told the Global Times in an e-mailed statement on Tuesday.

The flying car is a potential industry that could transform modes of travel, the company said.

"According to a survey, China faces an annual loss of 250 billion yuan (.9 billion) because of traffic jams. In this aspect, the commercialization of flying cars can promote transportation efficiency and bring about new economic growth," it said.

Industry trailblazers

Geely is among a swarm of companies that are looking to create flying cars, including aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Boeing, luxury car producer Mercedes-Benz and China's Internet giant Tencent Holdings.

In November, Boeing acquired Aurora Flight Sciences, accelerating the aviation giant's development in order to advance autonomous technology capabilities.

A leader in the emerging field of electric propulsion for aircraft, Aurora specializes in autonomous system technologies to enable advanced robotic aircraft for future aerospace applications and vehicles.

"As an integral part of Boeing, our pioneered technologies of long-endurance aircraft, robotic co-pilots and autonomous electric VTOLs will be transitioned into world-class products for the global infrastructure," John Langford, Aurora founder and CEO, was quoted as saying in a statement Boeing sent to the Global Times on Wednesday.

In fact, Aurora is one of Uber's partners in the ride-hailing firm's flying car project named Elevate. Reuters reported in November that Uber is working with the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) to develop software to be used for managing flying taxi routes in city skies.

The company is planning to begin testing a four-passenger flying taxi across Los Angeles in 2020, and by 2023, it hopes to introduce the intra-city service to paying customers, Reuters said.

China's Tencent has also jumped on the bandwagon. For example, German start-up Lilium, which aims to create a five-passenger flying taxi, announced in September that it had gained a million round of financing led by Tencent.

Airbus also seems to have taken a step forward, by saying it will test its Vahana single-person prototype flying car by the end of this year.

Recently, the vehicle completed its move to Pendleton Hangar at Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in the U.S., which, according to Airbus, is a "monumental step" toward its maiden flight, the Daily Mail reported on November 13.

Obstacles in the way

In line with current plans, the world's first flying car will likely realize mass production in the U.S. in 2019, according to Geely.

Considering current flying car technologies, it is possible to say that the new vehicle could indeed be mass produced in less than two years, echoed domestic news site on Tuesday, citing Zhang Yangjun, director of the General Aviation Technology Research Center at Tsinghua University.

But the commercialization of flying cars in China still has a long way to go before it becomes a reality, for example, the country needs to strive toward the opening-up of low-altitude air space, sound pilot training and effective legal support, Zhang noted.

"As flying car technology needs to meet both road and low-altitude flying standards, the development of the industry needs to break the bottleneck of duration and loading capability," Geely said.

As for VTOL aircraft, they could make full use of both existing road systems and air space, but could nevertheless face problems related to security, continuity regarding the transition from roads to skies as well as high-fuel consumption, Zhang said.

Security should be a priority and the vehicle's airscrew or air fan should not emit any noise pollution, he said.

Most importantly, the flying car should have the capacity to take off instantly after running on the road with a high speed, that is, it should incorporate mode transition continuity, which, according to Zhang, is the prerequisite for mass adoption.

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