Many science fiction universes feature futuristic cities with giant buildings reaching for the clouds and thousands of flying cars swarming through the air. Flying cars have long been a trigger for imagination and creativity. The first working prototype was designed by Moulton Taylor, an American inventor, in 1949. His creation could nonetheless never find a commercial application, and today, flying cars remain science-fiction.
But things are moving forward. Uber has launched a project called Uber Elevate, dedicated to flying cars, and on april 26 and 27, organised a convention in Dallas centered on this technology. Dubai is partnering with the Chinese company Ehang, whose huge flying drone made headlines during CES 2016, to build a fleet of flying cabs. For its part, Airbus is working on no less than three different flying car projects. Vahana is certainly the most hyped of the bunch. Born in A3 offices, Airbus innovation lab in the Silicon Valley, its name refers to the mythical animals deities use as vehicles, according to the Hindu mythology. Fully autonomous, electric, single-seater, vertically taking-off and landing, this futuristic aircraft is designed to be part of a transportation fleet, following Uber's model.
"The benefit of Vahana is that it will get passengers to and from their destination in a significantly reduced amount of time than a ground-based commute", says Zach Lovering, Vahana's project executive. It can also have many other use cases. "It can be an air taxi, but it can also be used as a cargo delivery platform, ambulance, search and rescue, limousine..."
Airbus is also working on a project named Pop.Up, in partnership with Italdesign, Lamborghini's automotive design company (Volkswagen Group). It relies on a fleet of small, electric, autonomous and modular vehicles, which can operate on the ground or in the air. A central platform selects the most efficient route to bring the passengers to their destination. The third project, and the most secretive, is called City Airbus and is conceived by a team of French and German developers. It relies on huge quadcopters to carry multiple passengers in one trip.
More energy-sufficient vehicles
The take-off of this technology is primarily the result of the development of self-driving softwares. With them, we can hope for a more secure and efficient ecosystem than would have been possible with humans at the wheel. All the more so as it may be easier to program a software that is able to drive in the air than one that operates on the ground, according to Zach Lovering. "There are fewer objects in the air versus on the ground, and there is more freedom to move." Other major developments in this space include improvement in the use of electric energy and new manufacturing methods relying on composite materials, that allow to build lighter, more energy-efficient vehicles. Finally, complex parts that used to be expensive to manufacture can now be made more efficiently using 3-D printing.
According to Zach Lovering, it's only a matter of time before increasing urbanisation and resulting traffic problems lead us to look up to the sky. "Today, there are 31 megacities with over ten million people, and by 2050 two-thirds of the global population will live in cities. A century ago the solution was for urban transport to go underground. Today, we need to take advantage of this 'third dimension' of transportation."