Flying cars? 'We are closer than we've ever been'

Are you ready to take a drive on the highway in the sky? Industry experts say flying cars are coming.
The Kitty Hawk Flyer is an all-electric aircraft that is tested and legal to operate in the U.S. It's specifically designed to fly over water. (kittyhawk.aero)
Listen25:09

The dream of personalized air flight has long been fodder for science-fiction enthusiasts, but the reality of so-called flying cars might be closer than you think — at least according to Uber.

Late April, the ride-sharing company announced its goal of creating a network of flying taxis in Dubai and the Dallas area by 2020. Uber is just one of many tech and transportation companies in the race to design something that could completely disrupt the way we travel — and live.

Just don't call them flying cars.  

"A lot of people in the industry sort of disdain that term. They feel like it is a not a very accurate way to describe what ... they're really working on," says Andrew Hawkins, a transportation reporter at The Verge.

"What we're talking about here is not a Buick or a Chevy with wings attached to the side of it. It's actually more akin to a very lightweight helicopter."

Hawkins tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that proponents prefer the term VTOL, or Vertical Takeoff and Landing aircraft.

Uber's proposed flying taxi service hopes to be able to transport five to eight people in the VTOL it is developing. Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, is developing another flying vehicle with his company Kitty Hawk.

Related: Silicon Valley Takes On the Flying Car

"It looks more like a half aquatic, half aerial hover-bike type vehicle. It was a very strange looking looking prototype," Hawkins says.

The Kitty Hawk Flyer's open-blade propellers is a safety concern for Missy Cummings, who is a researching personal air transport for NASA and director of Duke University's Humans and Autonomy Laboratory.

"They're incredibly dangerous," she tells Tremonti.

"It may be a rich people's vehicle, but if a wife wants to get rid of her husband, that may be one toy she wants to buy."

Cummings believes we are more than a decade away from an air service like the one Uber is proposing.  

And Michael Wade, director of the Global Centre for Digital Business Transformation, agrees several barriers remain.

He points to regulatory and licensing challenges, privacy and security concerns, and exorbitant costs as some of the issues to overcome besides just the technological obstacle of a battery-powered flight. 
In George Jetson's world, there was no traffic commuting to work in his aerocar. (Youtube/John Picha)

"I think the time when we're all going to have one of these things in our driveways is a long way off in the future," Wade says. 

One of the major driving forces behind the push for these kind of vehicles is gridlock, according to Hawkins.

"It's very difficult to drive anywhere these days, especially in major urban centres … It's leading to a lot of frustration. And these tech companies think that they can make a little bit of money by bypassing the roads and going through the air instead."

Hawkins says Uber's immediate plans is to develop a fleet of VTOL aircraft that would use so-called vertiports at street level or on top of buildings, and the air service would be an extension of their regular ground-based transportation service. If a client needs to get to the airport, they could take an Uber car for the full trip, or take an Uber car to a closest vertiport where they would use a VTOL for the rest of the trip.

Others worry about the logistics of flying cars. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has raised concerns about the noise pollution and wind forces VTOLS create.

But despite all the challenges, Cummings says flying cars are still just a matter of time.

"I want to encourage people, you know, to still dream big," she says.

"We are closer than we've ever been."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Shannon Higgins.