Is the flying car ready to take off?

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The Jetsons flying car. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

It’s one of the most persistent tropes of science fiction – the thing that signifies we’re in the future or on another planet with technology that far exceeds our own: The flying car.

“The Jetsons” comes to mind for most people thinking about the future of flying cars. But also “The Fifth Element,” “Blade Runner” and “Back to the Future.”

Here on Earth, in the present, the advent of the flying car has been 10 years away for at least the last 50 years. Despite a variety of attempts, and some actual functioning prototypes, the future we were promised has not yet appeared. If a flying car is neither a very good car, nor a very good airplane, it has little chance of success.

But things are actually different now. Technological advances in three main arenas have brought the possibility of a personal flying vehicle much closer to fruition. Energy storage capacity with the advent of lithium ion batteries has made a significant difference. The potential of an even newer battery, the lithium air battery, holds out the possibility of even greater advancements. Materials technology, with improvements in the use of carbon fiber, has lead to increased strength and decreased weight of vehicles. And computing power, along with the neural net, deep learning or AI capabilities point to the probability of safe, self-guided vehicles.

DeLorean Aerospace DR-7 (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
lilium Jet

Nearly a dozen companies are chasing the dream of individual flying vehicles, or flying cars, or eVTOLs – electric Vertical Take Off and Landing, or airborne personal mobility devices – as Geoff Wardle, the Executive Director, Graduate Transportation Systems and Design at Art Center College of Design calls them. Professor Wardle thinks “technology isn’t an issue any longer,” and said “it’s going to happen.” Not that there aren’t a lot of particulars to figure out, he added.

Smaller companies like DeLorean Aerospace by Paul DeLorean, based in Laguna Beach California and giant industrial conglomerates like Airbus, and several in between – Lilium, a German company that demonstrated a full-sized prototype in April and raised $90 million, and Volocopter, who demonstrated their eight rotor electric vehicle in Dubai last week and has a $30 million investment from Mercedes Benz, and the Cartivator, a volunteer-based Japanese venture backed by Toyota among others, with the stated goal of lighting the Olympic torch in Tokyo in 2020 from their vehicle.

Dreams have a way of becoming reality, if they’re widespread enough, and given enough time and ingenuity. We may be approaching that day with the flying car- which in the end seems like the best and simplest nomenclature.