In Style + Design

Flying Cars Are Almost Ready To Take Your Commute To The Third Dimension

Next time you’re sitting, stewing, in gridlocked traffic, do not do this math in your head.

If you think about how fast the human population has grown past the 7.5 billion mark, and add in the fact that we’re on track to buy 100 million new cars a year, globally, by 2020, and take away the speed at which we can possibly build new roads, or bore expensive tunnels, you’re left with a depressing fact – traffic is only going to get worse. So much worse.

And that’s why even some car brands, including German giant Mercedes-Benz, are now accepting that we need to move our transport into “a third dimension”, and that means flying cars.

Yes, you’ve heard about flying cars before, and seen sci-fi schemes of what they might look like – most famously in Back to the Future II – but this time, they’re serious. And they don’t look like winged station wagons, they’re basically just giant drones. Which… just might work.

Autonomous Aerial Vehicle Ehang184 Photo: Ehang

Certainly, companies like Benz don’t tend to invest $37m in something that won’t fly, as it were, and that’s just what a consortium led by Daimler-Benz did recently, investing in a German start-up called Volocopter.

The company’s proposed flying taxi – which has already conducted test flights in Dubai – looks like a drone that’s been blown up to the size of a helicopter, or vice versa, and aims to have a range of 30 to 50km, more than enough for the typical commute. And it will run entirely on quietly humming electricity, supplied to its 18 rotor motors.

Benz’s vice president of strategy, and the man responsible for its future technologies, Wilko Stark, shocked a crowd at South By Southwest (the annual festival of music, film and fantastic ideas held in Austin, Texas) recently, where he was giving a talk entitled Five Things You Didn’t Know About Self-Driving Cars.

Autonomous Aerial Vehicle Ehang184 Photo: Ehang

“I have to tell you that autonomous driving is not our craziest idea,” Stark said. “To make our world safer and more comfortable, we are on the cusp of a revolutionary moment when it comes to mobility, which has the potential for things we can’t even imagine.

“We envision a third dimension, with drones that can fly people for inner-city transport. It’s a very challenging time, but we really have a chance now to change the future, and embrace the future.”

Seemingly even more advanced than the Volocopter, though, is the E-Hang 184, a slightly smaller (just one occupant flown by eight rotors, mounted on four arms, which is what the 184 stands for) upscaled drone from China, which its makers say will be so easy to fly, you won’t even need a pilot’s licence.

Company co-founder Derrick Xiong also presented E-Hang’s work to a packed house at South By Southwest and explained that companies like his, working in the drone space, had long planned to scale up to human size.

Autonomous Aerial Vehicle Ehang184 Photo: Ehang

“Our goal was to build an aircraft that’s super safe and can run on electricity, so we started with drones and making them easier and more accurate to fly, until we came up with one that’s so simple you can control it from a mobile phone, and that was a big success,” Xiong explained.

The company’s ultimate goal, the 184, has now hit the skies, taking more than 1000 test flights in China, and carrying city officials and other guests around to convince them. Staff and investors in EHang have also committed to commuting in the vehicles themselves for the next three years, to prove how safe they are.

“We talk about self-driving technology, and those cars are starting to appear on the roads in China, but the sky is much easier, because there are no barriers and no obstacles,” he said.

“We have eight propellors, each powered separately, so if one fails there are seven to back it up.

Autonomous Aerial Vehicle Ehang184 Photo: Ehang

“And two years ago, we built a Flight Command Centre, in Guangzhou City, which is the world’s first control centre for drones, or flying cars, and all data is transmitted back to the centre, so if the passenger has any trouble, the engineers will know even before the passenger, and they can take over the flying, with real-time footage.

“This is not sci-fi imagining, or an extreme sport for the fearless. This machine is very stable and the controls are very simple, and precise. So, yeah, this is real.”

The EHang 184, which looks impressively real on YouTube, has a range of around 45km on a single battery charge, which takes an hour. It can carry humans of up to 100kg, has a top speed of 130km/h and can fly at up to 500m altitude.

Xiong also promised that the pricing will be “incredibly consumer friendly”, which sounds as vague as most past promises about flying cars.

Published 10 April, 2018