Technology

'Flying car' to go on sale by end of year

A Kitty Hawk Flyer will be available to consumers by the end of this year. But how soon can would-be pilots go from hobbyists to commuters? 

Cimeron Morrissey, an outdoor sports enthusiast and freelance writer, flies the the Kitty Hawk Flyer prototype. The Flyer will become available for sale by the end of this year.
Davis Elen/Courtesy of Kitty Hawk
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Flying cars are no longer reserved for the on-screen worlds of “The Jetsons” and “Back to the Future.”

In one of the first public test flights of a “flying car,” a prototype, seen in a video published on Monday, whizzes over the waters of a lake about 100 miles north of San Francisco.

The battery-powered Kitty Hawk Flyer – which looks like an oversized quadcopter drone with two pontoons attached to it for takeoff and landing – will be available to consumers by the end of the year, according to the startup financially backed by Google cofounder Larry Page. But don’t expect it to shave minutes off your morning commute anytime soon.

Yes, Kitty Hawk is a frontrunner in the race to bring the flying car to market, even as Uber aims to launch a flying taxi service by 2020. But the Kitty Hawk Flyer will be restricted to flight over freshwater and away from cities and other densely populated areas.

The technology is near ready for hobbyists to take flight, with advances in electric motors, batteries, and computer software. But it’s further away from being able to stay in the air for the length of a commute, or ready for approval by aviation regulators for use over urban areas.

“I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but we can’t even take our cellphones on airplanes today because of fears about battery fires,” Missy Cummings, the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University in Durham, N.C., who is researching personal air transport for NASA, told The New York Times. “How is this going to work?”

For now, one needs only imagine flying over water like Luke Skywalker in a Landspeeder. Or maybe the proper analogy is a flying motorcycle? That’s how Cimeron Morrissey, featured in the demo video, described her experience in a post on Medium. 

“You mount the seat and lean forward, just like you would on a bike. The controls are built into a set of handlebars and work similar to buttons and joysticks on a video game controller. It takes off and lands vertically, like a helicopter. But unlike a helicopter, the Flyer is 100 percent electric and powered by eight rotors,” she writes. “I feel like the Flyer and I are one.... This is just like my flying dreams!”

In the test footage and other content published on Monday, Kitty Hawk did not specify what the Flyer’s intended use will be, only that it can be flown over freshwater. The California-based startup is also offering would-be pilots a $100 three-year membership for priority on a waiting list. Members will also receive a $2,000 discount off the eventual retail price of aircraft, although Kitty Hawk hasn’t said how much that will be.

Once the Flyer becomes available, operators can learn to fly it “in minutes,” according to Kitty Hawk, and will not need a pilot’s license. The Flyer is considered an ultralight aircraft, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, meaning an operator does not need a pilot’s license to fly it over “uncongested areas.”

The Flyer is one of numerous prototypes considered vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircrafts. Other big names in the mix include ride-hailer Uber, airplane manufacturer Airbus, and a number of other startups including Slovakia-based AeroMobil and German-based Lilium Jet. Uber announced at its Elevate Summit on Tuesday that it expects to deploy its flying taxis in both Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai by 2020, according to Reuters. 

VTOL aircrafts take off vertically like a helicopter, then fly horizontally once they are in the air, according to VOX. Unlike traditional airplanes, VTOL aircrafts do not need a long runway for takeoff, making them perfectly suited for flying cars.

Flying cars have long been a science-fiction fascination. One of the first inventors in Northern California to tinker with the design was engineer Alexander Weygers, who received a patent for his “discopter” in 1945, according to Bloomberg. In the 1950s, there was the limited edition Aerocar, according to USA TODAY.  

What is really propelling these modern VTOL prototypes forward are advances in electric motor, battery, and software technology – and a host of wealthy investors. 

“Electric motors can be much lighter, simpler, and cheaper than traditional aircraft engines powered by fossil fuels – and they’re getting lighter and more powerful every year. And that opens up a lot of new opportunities for airplane designers,” adds Vox’s Timothy B. Lee.

The same is true with batteries. Improvements to the amount of energy laptops, smartphones, tablets and electric vehicle batteries have improved overall battery technology. This, along with advances in computer aviation software, is making their way into flying car prototypes. But these batteries still aren’t powerful enough to keep even an ultralight aircraft above ground for, say, a 30 or 50-mile commute, notes The New York Times.

Another major hurdle is winning over regulators who are trying to keep up in an age of flying drones and hoverboards.

"Generally speaking, technology is outstripping not just existing regulations, but the speed with which government regulators can rule on new regulations that ensure new technology is safe and organized," Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Cox Automotive, told USA TODAY. “There are just regulations questions all over the place."

But it’s not just regulators who must be convinced. A majority of the public is wary of flying cars, according to a recent survey by two researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor. Almost 63 percent of respondents said they were “very concerned” about the overall safety of flying cars.

“Gravity is a formidable adversary,” John Leonard, a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, told the Times. 

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