Beware the Man With the Flying Car

Beware the Man With the Flying Car
By Henry Grabar
Jan 18 2017

It has been 11 months since the aviation giant Airbus, through its Silicon Valley branch A3, launched Project Vahana—an effort to build the world’s first certified, commercial passenger aircraft with no pilot. On Monday, Airbus CEO Tom Enders told a tech conference in Munich that a prototype would be ready by the end of 2017.

According to Reuters, Enders argued the vehicle, which would function as a taxi, will allow users to avoid gridlock on city roads. It could even save money on infrastructure, he said. “With flying, you don’t need to pour billions into concrete bridges and roads.” As he tells it, the switch to airborne vehicles would be as significant as the development of underground subway systems 150 years ago.

Twenty-four hours later, the story was the fifth-most popular on Reuters and had been picked up by dozens of giddy content creators elsewhere. Sample headline from Yahoo: “Flying cars are real and Airbus is making them this year.”

There are a few problems with the breathless press coverage here. First of all, what Enders said wasn’t exactly news. A3 CEO Rodin Lyasoff wrote in September that a prototype, which looks like a bobsled with wings and propellers, would be ready by the end of 2017. More significantly, this month’s Airbus magazine story on the Vahana gives a lot of reasons to be skeptical.

Lyasoff has previously made the case for a “new generation of personal aerial vehicles,” prompted by urban transportation challenges as well as elements of technical progress that were “trending favorably,” including better batteries, low-cost flight control systems, and cheaper manufacturing processes.

Just one thing is missing: “sense-and-avoid technology” to help the vehicles from smashing into things midflight. “That’s one of the bigger challenges we aim to resolve as early as possible,” Lyasoff told the company magazine.

Well … Yes. That does seem like it should be a top priority. (This is a major problem for drone-delivery schemes, too.) And more pedestrian obstacles stand between us and our flying car future.

Airbus is one of a dozen-plus companies working on “flying cars.” In June, Bloomberg Businessweek revealed that Google co-founder Larry Page had been secretly funding one aerial vehicle company for years and had invested in another. Massachusetts-based Terrafugia claims to be developing a “flying car” with a price on-par with high-end luxury cars. In March, the German manufacturer e-volo became the first company to fly a manned, fully electric “multicopter.”



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