German startup Lillium may be poised to change the future of the flying car industry by finally making it feasible and attractive to consumers. This week, it offered a flying car prototype that is economically reasonable, technologically simpler, learnable by the average consumer (in the same manner as learning to drive a car), and has practical application in many situations. Lillium’s all-electric, Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL), jet-tested flying car might have what it takes to balance consumer demand, technological efficiency, and public safety concerns.
Anyone asking why we don’t yet have flying cars may want to ask a different question. There currently exists a great number of flying aerocars and aerobikes, and countless others in various stages of design and development. They are also not entirely new, and inventors have being working on bringing airplanes and automobiles together ever since either was invented.
Despite this quest for a feasible flying car design, the first roadblocks did not just include the design itself. Up to and including the present, there has only ever been one aerocar that was actually made which is certified by the FAA and legal to fly above 15 feet, and that is the Taylor Aerocar. They were made in the 1950’s, and because only six of them were ever produced, they are valued in the millions of dollars.
Some of them still fly. Top Gear co-host James May did a segment on it, in which he highlights the impracticalities of the clunky design. Even setting aside its design features and limitations, one major reason flying cars have never really had much success is the red tape. May also explains this with great clarity:
“Before you could drive or fly the aerocar, your paperwork had to be in order. You needed a driver’s license, and you also needed a pilot’s license. You needed to register it as a car, and you needed to register it as an airplane. You needed a radio operator’s license for the aeroplane. You also needed a medical certificate to be a pilot. And because it was over seventeen feet long when the wings were being towed, in America, you needed a chauffer’s license, and a chauffer’s license requires another, different medical. So all in all, you needed eight licenses and certificates in order to own an aerocar.”
Some of this red tape stems from the fact that laws have been fully developed regarding the regulation of aircraft, as well as the regulation of ground transportation, including anything that is street legal. The two have seldom overlapped, and so it might require new legal language for a flying car industry to take off. The solution could involve separate classifications of vehicles based on how high they fly, as well as how fast they go, where they travel, typical occupancy, and even how they move around.
Some flying crafts do not fly very high, for example. Others can fly higher, but do not operate like typical, high-speed airplanes. And still others are nothing more than airplanes that you can fit onto a street and drive. This has even lead some to decry the use of the phrase “flying car” altogether, as it is misleading for use with some designs.
There are already a number of designs for cars, motorbikes, dune buggies, and other offroad vehicles that can successfully fly. All of these designs are marketable to niche crowds, and they all have limitations that would prevent them from truly merging the automobile with flight in a practical way that would appeal on a mass scale.
The Terrafugia TF-X, for example, is basically a collapsable, roadable airplane that you can park in your garage. Although it uses unleaded fuel and can be filled at any gas station, it is geared more for consumers that would love to have a private plane but lack the resources to house and maintain one. It looks less like a car and more like a folded up plane on wheels. It’s a different target audience, to say the least.
The roadable “powered parachute” aircraft, Maverick, would appeal to those looking for a fun, off-road experience, which can include limited flight. It would not appeal to those in the cities, or anyone looking for a commuter vehicle. The Aero-X bike is also limited in its vertical range, which is intentional. Anything above 15 feet would require a pilot’s license. Its target audience involves recreation, farming, and search and rescue.
Google co-founder Larry Page’s aquatic-oriented hovercraft, made by startup Kitty Hawk, is also limited in hight and application. It’s potential for search and rescue as well as recreation, as well as it’s extremely light weight, will surely make it a marketable product. But again, this will be a niche market.
There are hundreds of designs in various stages of development at the moment. What the above mentioned all have in common, though, is that they are all planning to release their latest products this year.
This would all be enough to suggest that the era of the flying car is beginning, but the VTOL that was recently test driven by Lillium is the real gamechanger of 2017. What sets it apart from other flying cars is everything that limited each design that came before it.
For starters, while vertical lift aircrafts are not new, previous examples have required a tremendous amount of complexity. The VTOL replaces the driveshaft with dozens of separate, electric fans, and there is no need for a cooling system. Even with its simplicity, it has speeds of up to 300 mph, and reportedly has good handling. The lack of typical jet engines also makes the vehicle lighter and, therefore, more aerodynamic.
In other words, this may be the flying car that has all of the necessary components to be a truly marketable product. It is also simple enough that only 20 hours of training is necessary to fly it, which pales in comparison with getting an actual pilot’s license. The vertical flight also means this aircraft does not need long runways, either.
The emergence of a viable option for flying car technology that consumers may take great interest in means that regulators will want to take an equally great interest in reviewing them for safety. It would not be unlikely that, much like the regulation-defying company Uber (which also plans to get into the aerocar game), companies producing flying cars bank on the complexity of the law in order to afford the time needed to innovate and sell their products.
The rush to regulate flying cars does not seem entirely unreasonable. Even Elon Musk believes, controversially, that flying cars are not a “scalable solution,” because of people’s fears that car parts may fall on them and kill them. He says, “Your anxiety level will not decrease as a result of things that weigh a lot buzzing around your head.” He does, however, believe in VTOL technology for traditional air travel.
Finally, the government’s role may evolve as well. The degree to which users will be allowed to fly at all, as well as when, how, or with whom, will likely become a controversy in and of itself. Vehicles may be required to pass safety inspections, and the relevance of these requirements to the application of the vehicle may cause problems.
There are even some that have concerns about the government’s ability to control a vehicle, either by redirecting its flight, or by shutting it down entirely.
The leaked documents by Wikileaks did show that the CIA has the ability to do this already. It remains to be seen whether this will actually manifest, but it’s worth considering.
Regardless, the latest and greatest in this technology is going to be coming out this year. 2017 could be the breakout year, when the flying car finally takes off.