Japan wants flying cars in its skies in three years. Here’s how they plan to pull it off
As a country known for its fast, efficient transportation, Japan is hoping to conquer the next frontier of human mobility: winning the race to build a manned flying car.
This week at a top secret test facility in central Japan, we were given a glimpse of what that Jetsons and Blade Runner-inspired flying future might look like.
With the noisy whirr of 100 beehives, SkyDrive’s pilot roared the eight motors to life and lifted off, slowly turning the car from side to side and flying for a few minutes.
It was a risk-averse display in many senses.
They were short, carefully controlled manoeuvres, and out of an abundance of safety, spectators were required to watch from behind layers of safety glass, nets and scaffolding.
The man in charge of the company is Tomohiro Fukuzawa, who believes that within three years, people in Japan will be able hail a flying two-seater vehicle that can travel 5 kilometres.
It doesn’t sound like much but it would theoretically get a passenger from Tokyo’s Haneda airport to one of the city’s biggest hubs.
SkyDrive’s flying car successfully hovered in the air for several minutes during a test flight.
The Japanese Government has committed to a roadmap for an ‘air mobility revolution’, setting up a council to bring government agencies, researchers and companies together in the effort to build a flying car.
Making sure all of the technologies used by the cars can communicate through sophisticated sensors and a common language will be mandatory if the pilotless future is to be realised.
“I think flying cars will become normal in the near future,” Mr Fukuzawa said.
“The cost will go down as more cars will be made and I think the world of flying cars will become more accessible for the public.”
By 2050, Tomohiro Fukuzawa wants you to be able to travel anywhere in Tokyo’s dense metropolis in 10 minutes or less.
Tomohiro Fukuzawa (right) and Nobuo Kishi believe their flying cars will have people travelling up to 5 kilometres through the skies by 2023.
There are a great number of challenges to actually getting a car to fly — not least of which is keeping it from crashing.
It’s Nobuo Kishi’s job as chief technology officer to think of all the terrifying things that could go wrong while soaring above the Japanese skyline.
“We need to decide how to fly safely if one of the propellers stopped and make sure it can land safely,” he said.
‘We can’t put a stop sign in the air’
Nearly every futuristic science fiction movie features a flying car of some sort, but there are many reasons they haven’t happened yet.
Part of the problem is that they will be incredibly difficult to operate.
Currently highly skilled pilots like Ando are the only ones who can drive the flying car, but companies hope they can make them more user-friendly in the future.
“The [test] flight had a highly skilled pilot who’s trained very well,” Mr Nishi explained.
“But it will become easier to operate the vehicle in 2023 and will not require such skills. We need to work on the flight control a little more.”
And there is the huge challenge of regulating traffic at an altitude of 150 metres — somewhere between the maximum height of a consumer drone and a helicopter.
“When we have cars on a road, we have things like traffic lights and stop signs and roundabouts. Everybody knows what to do,” the University of New South Wales’ Senior Lecturer in Aerospace Design Sonya Brown said.
“With electric vehicles up in the air, we need these vehicles to be able to talk to each other. We can’t put a stop sign up in the air.
The flying cars will need sophisticated sensors to help prevent mid-air collisions.
Another problem is how to power the flying cars so they can go more than a few kilometres.
Most current prototypes are powered by battery, which is great for the environment, but come with limitations, according to Dr Brown.
“Current batteries don’t really allow the extension of the distances and ranges that we want to these flying aircraft to go,” she said.
“So there’s a lot of development in that energy storage, electrical space to really be able to make these flying cars reach their potential.”
Two flying car models emerge
There are a few different categories of flying car.
Multicopters resemble big drones with spinning propellers that rise into the air.
The multicopter doesn’t travel as far as a winged flying car.
The multicopter is slower and can’t travel as far, but is less complex than winged versions.
That’s because with winged flying cars need to find a way to take off vertically and then transition to horizontal flight.
Despite the challenges, Australia will likely see wing-based flying cars due to their ability to travel further distances, according to the University of Sydney’s Associate Professor in Aerospace Design and Propulsion Dries Verstraete.
Morgan Stanley Research predicts that the electric vertical takeoff and landing market, which includes flying cars, cargo and delivery drones, will be worth $2.2 trillion AUD by 2040.
SkyDrive has raised almost $80 million AUD in funding and is backed by some of Japan’s biggest trading houses, corporations and banks.
But they’re up against some stiff competition from major aviation companies like Boeing and Airbus, which are also racing to develop a flying car.
Some rideshare companies say they’re planning to have flying taxis in the air in a few years.
Uber too is hoping to launch a flying taxi service by 2023, with Melbourne selected as a trial city.
Chinese company EHang showed off its manned prototypes in February of 2018, but Dr Brown said being first doesn’t necessarily indicate long term success.
“Being first is great because you will get some of this media coverage … and everyone’s going to know your name,” she said.
“But in reality, just like aircraft now and cars now … performance comes above being first.”
Will society really accept flying cars?
And there are questions for society too.
Getting a license to fly in the skies is just the first step. These companies will need to be accepted by the cities they fly over.
“Getting community acceptance for noise and visual pollution [will be important],” Associate Professor Dries Verstraete from the University of Sydney said.
“If [people] see it as toys for the rich, they won’t accept it. If they see a benefit in their own personal life then I think it will gain acceptance.”
With people already complaining about noise pollution from airports, Skydrive’s Chief Technology Officer Nobuo Kishi says flying cars will need to be virtually silent.
“I think we need a low noise vehicle for the next generation. I think the current one is okay without using ear plugs, we can bear it,” he said.
“But I think it’s noisy for the general people so we need to work on the aerodynamics of the propellers.”
Early models of flying cars will only have room for a pilot and a passenger, making them a very expensive transport option.
But flying cars won’t necessarily be the playthings of billionaires.
The technology can be potentially used for emergency transportation and disaster relief, because the space required for take off and landing is much smaller.
Their potential lower cost too means they can be stationed in more places for faster responses in emergencies.
In a country prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, a getaway car that descends from the skies could be a lifesaver.