Goodbye Roads, I’m taking off!

Traffic.

The bane of existence of any commuter, and the singular phenomenon that will instantaneously make any individual wish they could be bestowed superpowers exceeding mortal capabilities.

For instance, the telekinetic ability to reach across the horizon, find that one car responsible for the holdup and pluck it off the streets.

Or perhaps sprouting wings, so you could get out of the car and shoot off into the skies, gawked upon with bewilderment and envy by those people whose freedom is restricted because there is only one conventional plane of motion when you are stuck in a vehicle: forwards or backwards.

Mark my words – a combination aeroplane and motor car is coming

The famous quote by Henry Ford in 1940 claims that “Mark my words – a combination aeroplane and motor car is coming”, and the theory of flying cars has always been on the list of technological advancements that society most expectantly looks forward to. However it has not been functionally achieved because it is interdependent with many other complex projects across the science and technology fields of research. You might think, if we have airplanes and helicopters, why is it difficult to build flying cars? The necessity of a runway and ground staff is a major issue. The urbanisation of most landscapes means that accessories devoted to transportation should not exceed the size of one individual vehicle. The system and complexities of airplanes would also need to be simplified and made user-friendly, by a huge margin, so that drivers could drive a flying car comfortably in a similar way, with similar controls to a typical car. The addition of fuel jets or blade propellers is also a no-no because they would be too noisy and potentially prove hazardous to passers-by. Choosing an efficient yet green fuel is another dilemma, since the consumption rate when travelling horizontally on a road is infinitely different from taking off, landings, and mileage when in the air.

However, breakthroughs in AI, GPS, electric/bio-fuel and material science over the last decade has brought us closer to this dream than ever before. In fact, Uber announced that by 2023, they plan to have flying taxis, (yes you read that right) to and from Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas and Los Angeles. In concept, these taxis will be able to travel 150-200miles/hour, will be charged electronically to promote environmental sustainability and will require no human driver. Companies around the world are racing,neck to neck to come up with their own eVTOL (electronic vertical take-off and landing) prototypes, which includes, but are not limited to the examples below:   


American Startup’s Aska flying car with retractable wings (Source: DesignBoom)

Aeronautical Company’s Volerian with the quietest propulsion wings, adaptable to different types of aircrafts (Source: NewAtlas)

AeroMobil’s 4th gen hybrid prototype with retractable wings and wheels, being able to take-off from a flight pad but also revert to a more typical car structure while driving on roads. (Source: Digital Trends)

Terrafugia’s TF-X hybrid, one that looks most like your everyday car rather than a helicopter (Source: Terrafugia)

eVTOLS incorporate several common technology to tackle the soaring problems mentioned above. The shape and form of the vehicles should be highly aerodynamic, in order to overcome air resistance to glide quick and effortlessly through the air. The outer coating, internal framework or sometimes wheels are often made with Carbon Fibre Reinforced Plastic (CFRP) complexes because it is lightweight, yet stronger than steel or aluminium, highly elastic (retains it’s original shape after expansion or shrinkage upon temperature changes) and highly resistant to environmental changes (corrosion).  The low density with high strength to weight ratio makes it ideal for reducing the total burden on the VTOL’s engines and makes staying long durations in the air safer. Fossil fuels will be abandoned for high energy density lithium ion batteries capable of being recharged at specialised public stations. Precise GPS systems and AI will enable automatous driving, while a second manual operation system would also be included as a backup safety plan.

Two common types of propulsion system include the Rotary Wing and the Fixed-Wing models. The former uses a motor to turn the wings and takes off directly vertically, thus reducing the need for a runway.  It is also possible to hover at a precise location for some periods of time, making it convenient for passengers to stop along their travels at will. However it has disadvantages being that the overall travelling speed of this kind of vehicle is considerable slower, while remaining stationary with the engines working (hover) puts a huge strain on the fuel. Noise of blade rotation can be quite loud, and if any one of them breaks downs, the balance of the vehicle would be tipped. The latter model counters most of these disadvantages: it generates lift, utilising the motion of airflow through its wings to travel at much higher speeds, while carrying a greater payload. Pilots have better control over the aircraft in case motors fail, they can manually take over and minimise damage. However it has it’s own downsides, mainly being the requirement of a runway, and the lack of ease in manoeuvring. It would not be able to hover at will, thus bringing less freedom to drivers and passengers of private vehicles.

To reap all the benefits yet eliminate the disadvantages of the above features, companies have personalised their own features. Such as, but not limited to the Volerian, which reduces noise and chance of malfunction by building oscillating wings with greater distribution of energy down its length.

So far, the future of flying cars seems bright and optimistic. However, although all of these technologies and features are now in existence, they are still in the early stages of prototype testing, and thus will need some time before full effectiveness, efficiency, maturity and safety is guaranteed, especially when real human passengers bode the vehicles for test drives. Nevertheless, if we look back on the sheer progress that humans have made in the science and technology fields of just the last decade alone, it is not difficult to believe that anything that was once deemed a far fetched, impossible concept can become a reality, one day in the near future. By then, while we are enjoying the luxury and freedom of our own flying cars, no doubt other questions that challenge the commonality of everyday life and the becoming of our society would need to be addressed. But hey! Who says we can’t tackle those problems as well when we are living in a society with more and more aspects once only seen in science fiction?

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