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Flying Cars Are Closer Than You Think

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Flying cars were thought to be coming as soon as four years from now, but actually commercial models are coming up sooner than what had been thought. Air taxi startup Kitty Hawk already has FAA approval to test its prototype in "uncongested areas." Boeing air taxi prototypes are in the works and the company expects to fly them within one year. German startup Volocopter is planning tests in Singapore next year. Audi and Airbus are testing out a trial run that will soon covert over to a flying car taxi service.

"It's coming because it has to," said Robin Lineberger, the leader of Deloitte's Aerospace & Defense industry practice, over speculation on why major companies are investing heavily in the technology. "We have no more room on the ground to move cars around."

Audi is conducting tests in South America in cooperation with the Airbus subsidiary Voom. Customers book helicopter flights in Mexico City or Sao Paulo, while an Audi is at the ready for the journey to or from the landing site. It will feed data into its autonomous, electric flying taxi prototype, which was shown taking its first public test flight yesterday at Drone Week in Amsterdam. 

In its first public test flight, the Audi and Airbus flight module accurately placed a passenger capsule on the ground module, which then drove from the test grounds in autonomous vehicle mode. It’s expected that as soon as the next decade starts, Audi customers could use a convenient and efficient flying taxi service in large cities. It will operate both in the sky and on the ground, and it being designed around the goals of providing customers with the opportunity to turn drive time into leisure or work time while still in the vehicle.

Audi and several of its global automaker competitors see advanced ride services as the inevitable wave of the future.

“More and more people are moving to cities. And more and more people will be mobile thanks to automation. In future senior citizens, children, and people without a driver’s license will want to use convenient robot taxis. If we succeed in making a smart allocation of traffic between roads and airspace, people and cities can benefit in equal measure,” said Dr. Bernd Martens, Audi board member for sourcing and IT, and president of the Audi subsidiary Italdesign. Related: How Much Does OPEC Need To Cut To Balance The Market?

Industry watchers and proponents see flying cars becoming part of the global transportation network and generating as much as $5 billion a year in service revenue. It ties in closely to automakers and tech giants investing heavily into automated, electric vehicles expected to soon come to roads.

Autonomous vehicles are expected to face a long phase of dealing with heavy traffic and competition for road space with human-driven cars and trucks. Some analysts see the worsening of urban traffic around the world leading to startups and majors exploring electric scooters as a mobility option.

Air mobility promises to lift vehicles out of clogged streets and quickly over to their destinations. Another incentive thought to be supporting flying cars is the high cost of housing in big cities. Construction projects are common around the world, but it takes these projects years to be completed. It also faces the challenge of mounting political opposition in several cities and dwindling supply of available land.

On the autonomous vehicle side, Waymo, Ford, General Motors, Apple, Uber, and Lyft, are working hard on testing out these vehicles and integrating them into shared ride services for corporations and individual riders. That’s where the concept of “robotaxis” has come from, which has generated a lot of interest and enthusiasm. Younger consumers, in particular, are more interested in having convenient, affordable rides than owning cars. Related: Mexico’s Oil Crisis Deepens

On the flying car side of the business, aerospace giants like Boeing and Airbus, Silicon Valley icons like Uber, and auto giants like Toyota, Volkswagen, and Daimler are jumping into the market. Jeff Bezos and Amazon are well-known for testing out drone package delivery test projects, which will help foster the technology into the commercial side of the business.

Google co-founder Larry Page has played his part in pushing for the new technology to comet to market. He’s backed a startup called Opener that is scheduled to have its first product on sale next year.

Opener’s first air/land craft, which is called BackFly, is capable of vertical takeoffs and landing. It’s powered entirely from a battery that gets recharged like an electric car. The startup says that BackFly will be capable of a fully autonomous flight, but it’s not clear if that will be ready at the time of its debut.

As ride-hailing giant Uber continues to push its potential 2019 initial public offering, the company sees its Uber Air flying taxi division to be part of its future. Uber has been in discussions with several companies, including Textron’s Bell, in its list of vehicle concepts with partners. The company wants Uber Air to have 60 miles of flying taxi range, so that customers can be airlifted across traffic-congested cities where Uber already has a strong presence.

By Jon LeSage for Oilprice.com

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