The flying car industry is really starting to -- pun incoming! -- take off. There is no more obvious a demonstration of this than that provided by Toyota, the world's biggest automaker, which recently invested 40 million yen (around $350,000) in a small Japanese startup that is developing just that: a "flying car".
Cartivator is working on a small, drone-like electric vehicle which, it says, will be able to fly around 33 feet -- 10 meters -- off the ground at 100km/h (62mph). It's called the SkyDrive, and the startup says it will be able to take off from any normal, public road and be "intuitive" to fly. Toyota has chipped in some funding, and are offering its mechanical engineers to the project. It's not clear if Toyota has invested in the company in return for shares, but it seems likely. As with most big companies, Toyota is most likely finding it difficult to innovate, so has funded Cartivator as a failsafe in case flying cars do ever become commercially viable. For its part, Cartivator wants the SkyDrive to light the torch at the the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which would be a pretty good way of announcing its groundbreaking product to the world.
A prototype of Cartivator's SykDrive.
However, flying cars are fraught with problems. For one, the regulation millions of small, flying vehicles would need is enormous, and would likely prevent the majority of "normal" citizens from owning and using a flying car on a daily basis. It's the same with airspace. How will pilots of tiny, one- or two-seater electric planes fly cars safely and not crash into each other or buildings, while landing safely? In the UK, over 1700 people died in a road traffic accident in 2015, and there were almost 190,000 accidents of any severity. If people can't adequately control cars on two axes (x and y), how can they be expected to control a mini-plane on three (x, y, and z)?
The answer to this may lie in ride-sharing. In the next decade, car ownership is expected to plummet as more and more people order an on-demand car from the likes of Uber or Lfyt when they need it, as opposed to owning a car outright. Indeed, Uber is working on and researching what could be called flying cars, although they seem to be more like tiny planes -- or "Vertical Take-Off and Landing" (VTOL) vehicles -- for possible testing in 2020. The eventual goal is for customers to be able to "push a button and get a high-speed flight in and around cities." It's a lofty aim, but more power to Uber if it thinks it can make the idea work.
Finally, self-driving cars may eclipse flying cars completely. Or it might be the other way round, or we could get self-flying VTOLs. There are many more companies researching technology surrounding autonomous vehicles or connected cars -- see the earlier report on Savari -- which is probably because, on the surface at least, they seem more plausible than flying cars do. Alphabet's Waymo, Uber and Tesla are leading the way on this, with cars being tested in multiple states and Tesla's Autopilot feature in the hands of customers. (See Savari Wants to Get 5G Into Connected Cars.)
That's not to say Silicon Valley giants aren't interested in flying cars -- Google co-founder Larry Page invested personally in Kitty Hawk, a Mountain View-based startup which recently released a demo video of its first prototype. That said, it seems the research surrounding autonomous vehicles and VTOLs hasn't come together quite yet. The current self-driving focus is on collision detection using radars, sensors and cameras, but would likely have to be substantially redeveloped for flying purposes. That z axis is a troublesome one indeed.
Flying cars have been of a dream of futurists and technologists for years. The thought of zipping to the office in five minutes is an alluring one, but it will likely be a while before products start to become commercially available. Even then, they may not be viable for a good amount of time after that, if ever.