From rideshares to self-driving cars, the automotive industry has experienced breathtaking changes in the past few years. And thanks to yet another push by Silicon Valley, when it comes to the future of driving, the sky’s the limit—literally.
The first “flying car” to potentially reach production was introduced to the world last week by tech startup Kitty Hawk, a company founded by Google cofounder Larry Page.
The short video released by the company shows a “driver” gleefully perched atop a vehicle that looks part hovercraft, part steel spider web, powered by eight propellers utilizing batteries to lift the 220-pound machine off the ground.
As the “car” zips around a picturesque setting, cruising just above the waterline of an expansive mountain lake, its operator enjoys unfettered views of his surroundings, manipulating two joysticks from atop the open-air vehicle.
For many, the scenario may seem like a dream come true. But how close it is to becoming an attainable reality—and how such a paradigm shift could affect the way we travel—is still very much up in the air.
Waiting for Take-Off
Still, that uncertain future hasn’t stopped Kitty Hawk from moving full speed ahead on releasing the product—perhaps, in part, due to the long line of ambitious tech firms taxiing on the runway behind it.
The company is already promoting the commercial availability of its machine, called the Flyer, by the end of the year. And even though a price point has yet to be set, it has promised that $100 down now could save you $2,000 on its product later, once the craft hits the market.
But more than a dozen other companies—including another venture supported by Page—have all shown some sort of interest in the pursuit. And Kitty Hawk’s flying contraption isn’t the only model being fast-tracked to market.
Airbus, the French aerospace giant responsible for producing the planes of the same name, has publicly announced two different vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) concepts it’s working on—also to be tested by year’s end, the company reports.
Uber has added the flying car to its lengthy list of automotive conquests, as well, although the company announced in Dallas earlier this week that it wasn’t interested in producing the cars themselves, but in creating a flying car ride hailing network, similar to the “disruptive” route it took into the taxi industry.
Even the government of Dubai has stepped into the ring, teaming up with Chinese firm Ehang to unleash flying taxis across the Middle Eastern city-state as early as this July.
The allure is understandable. Man’s fascination with the chance to glide through the air started long before the Wright brothers were able to mechanically achieve the feat in the North Carolina town that Page’s Kitty Hawk is named for.
But what type of roadmap can be made for the future of a technology that doesn’t need roads at all?
In our world of tangible reality, a freedom as great as flying would likely come with equally heavy responsibility, which begs the question: What role—if any—would the government play in regulating the burgeoning technology?
The Kitty Hawk test run was performed under a special set of rules designated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allowing for “ultralight” aircrafts to be flown without a pilot’s license. The company’s CEO, Sebastian Thrun—himself the founding director of Google’s self-driving car lab—has also said in press conferences that Kitty Hawk has been in contact with the FAA and sees the regulating agency as a friend. Still, he made no mention of how close the relationship between the private entity and the state organization would be moving forward.
In Dubai, the initiative was announced as a “directive […] of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to transform Dubai into the smartest city in the world.”
Likely, then, the government has directly given that project the green light, although it’s unclear what—if any—regulations will be issued upon the technology. Details surrounding any testing Airbus is planning on doing are similarly sparse.
Yet, if the new travel option gains in popularity, one could imagine a world where traffic jams not only congest our roads but our skyways.
Critics have mentioned issues such as noise and pollution, while others have wondered how one would go about getting a license to fly such a device, which agency would be responsible for issuing them, and how the flights themselves would be regulated. Would a skyway police force need to be created? A new division of air traffic controllers?
The FAA has already issued a spate of rules regarding personal drones, but the regulations describe aircraft weighing under 55 pounds, whereas an airborne car would be, quite literally, a much bigger matter.
It may seem that the road to flying cars is full of twists and turns, but if the technology really is what it seems, those contours may soon not matter.