Could the time finally be right for the flying car to leave the drawing boards of futurists and take to our skies as a new form of transportation? According to Francois Chopard, Founder and CEO of investment firm Starburst Accelerator, the answer is yes. For decades, the idea of flying cars has been used as shorthand for “the future”—something perpetually a few years off in the distance, waiting for technology to catch up and make them possible. Chopard thinks that’s finally happening.
He is not alone. In addition to AeroMobil—which plans to sell winged vehicles to well-heeled enthusiasts—there are quite a few other companies working on developing new vehicles to solve our commutes by taking them into the third dimension (see for example Uber, which is planning a new service called Uber Elevate). There’s also Google co-founder Larry Page, who owns two different flying car startups: Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk. Even Airbus is getting in on the action.
An Electric VTOL Orchestra?
Chopard and others think that taking to the skies will be a solution for increasing traffic density and ever-longer commutes in major cities. We spoke with him recently to see if he could counter our heavy skepticism. “When you look at prototypes that have been flying you can see the tech and performance is ready,” he explained, pointing to companies like Joby, Lilium, and Aurora. Unlike the AeroMobil Flying Car, which uses wings to generate lift and an internal combustion engine to provide propulsion, Chopard told us the real action is in electric vertical take-off and landing machines, which don’t require a runway or landing strip to operate.
“Los Angeles has maybe six or seven air fields, but more than 300 heliports. You need a good grid of places to take off and land to make the service efficient,” he told Ars. And electric power will beat burning av-gas, because it’s cheaper and doesn’t require the presence of fire-fighting equipment, unlike refueling a helicopter or general aviation airplane, he explained.
Despite reports that Zee.Aero’s vehicles sound like air raid sirens thanks to their electric motors, Chopard thinks the noise issue won’t be much of a factor either. “The target is to be as noisy as the environment. Right now, we’re just a couple of decibels away from that target,” he told us. “There are a couple of studies looking at whether just decibel levels are the right indicator to measure noise; low frequency or high frequency noise isn’t taken into account. These vehicles are less noisy than helicopters.”
It’s the policies, not the tech
As is the case with so many other emerging technologies—think genomics or self-driving cars—Chopard thinks the biggest unsolved issue is how to regulate flying cars. Certifying vehicles for flight shouldn’t be too troubling for regulators like the FAA. But most of these new startups are envisioning fully autonomous vehicles, in much the same way self-driving cars are the hot thing in the automotive sector.
That’s at least a decade away from being possible, he thinks. “Short term, regulators aren’t ready for that, a pilot will still be on board. In the next five or six years—and to build experience—there should still be a pilot, but after that automation should be much easier in the air because it’s a much less complicated environment,” Chopard said.
Still, even if the technology does prove mature—including those batteries, which we still think need to shed a little more weight to make all this truly feasible—we may well need to beef up air traffic control systems. The prospect of hundreds of extra flying vehicles flitting around our cities will require some careful management to maintain adequate separation, after all. But we have to admit, the prospect of a commute like Deckard’s in Blade Runner does sound pretty cool.