Flying cars: The future of mobility?

There is an emerging flying car industry in the world and a lot of entrepreneurial action in the sector. In India, a few companies have taken the plunge, but concerns about technology, infrastructure and regulatory challenges remain

Published: Oct 19, 2021 01:35:21 PM IST
Updated: Nov 1, 2021 04:47:25 PM IST

The ePlane company's e200 flying taxi as visualised on a Bangalore rooftop; ePlane's Pranjal Mehta and his team aim to convert rooftops into landing spots for eVOTL air taxis

Indian skies could see flying cars in the near future. Companies like Vinata Aeromobility and The ePlane Company are breaking new ground in the country with their eVOTL (electric vertical take off and landing vehicles) technology. The ePlane Company, started by IIT-Madras professor Satya Chakravarthy and his student Pranjal Mehta, aims to convert rooftops into landing spots for eVOTL air taxis. “We’re saying can we build a flying taxi so compact that it can land on the top of any average Indian household. We're building something that is 4x4 metres which will need about 360 square feet to land. That's the kind of space you can find on most terraces in India,” says Mehta says, adding that the company aims to create ride-sharing eVOTLS.

Pranjal believes that the sheer need for better mobility options will lead to a rapid adoption of flying cars and taxis in India despite the country’s low purchasing power. According to a survey by McKinsey and Company in June: “Interest in using passenger Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) was highest in India and Brazil. Thirty-one percent to 47 percent Indian respondents said they would definitely consider using an AAM vehicle in the future, depending on use case.”

On the other hand, Chennai-based Vinata Aeromobility is developing a fully autonomous flying car, which will be Asia’s first hybrid flying car, and one that will use biofuels. Founder and CEO Yohg CAS Iyer says, “We are going to be one step ahead from electric by using biofuel which will make mobility even more sustainable.”

According to Iyer, the hybrid technology will maximise flying time. He foresees setting up manufacturing to be the biggest challenge as there aren’t many big aerospace manufacturing companies in India. But “there is a large scope for component manufacturing here for urban air mobility systems”, he adds. The company will be launching its flying car in London at the world’s largest Helitech Exhibition in October.

The road ahead eVOTLs looks bright and there is entrepreneurial interest in the sector. With positive shifts in legislation globally, these technologies may soon transform the way we travel.   

There is an emerging flying car industry in the world with many players like Slovakia-based Klein Vision and Aerobomil, US-based Terrafugia, Kitty Hawk and Joby Aviation, Germany-based Lilium, and Netherlands-based PAL-V, to name a few. Move over drones, the air mobility space seems to be heating up. Even as the world moves towards electric vehicles, the future beyond that is in the works.

According to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in November 2019, road travel accounts for 75 percent of all transport emissions. Passenger vehicles like cars and buses contribute 45.1 percent of this and 29.4 percent comes from freight vehicles. Every year, 1.3 million people are killed and between 20 and 50 million are injured in road accidents, according to the World Health Organization. This costs many countries 2-3 percent of their GDP. A 2019 Global Traffic Scorecard by INRIX found that the average American lost 99 hours annually to traffic congestion which costs them almost $1,377 per year.

Satya Ramamurthy, global co-head of public transport, KPMG, in Singapore, says, “The future will be marked by a significant increase in public transport usage and vehicle-sharing… we will see reduced dependence on fossil fuels, and the lowering of the number of transport-related casualties arising from human error. These collectively characterise the future landscape of mobility, which will emphasise sustainability, safety and efficiency.”
As populations continue to grow, sustainable transportation will be among the most important problems of our times. Flying cars then could help reduce congestion on the roads and emissions from ground transport, and lower the risk of road accidents. A more immediate use for flying cars could be in improving emergency services such as ambulances, fire engines and so forth.

PhD associate professor at the University at Buffalo in the US, Panagiotis Ch. Anastasopoulos, says flying cars are designed to minimise carbon footprint, minimise noise, take little space compared to airplanes and choppers, and can be self-driven.

Flying cars can have a positive environmental impact as they can cover a longer distance in a shorter span than cars, use less energy for take off and cruise because of the wing design and modern automotive emissions-compliant engine technology, Slovakia-based Patrick Hessel, CEO of Aeromobil, tells Forbes India.

What is a flying car?

Many advanced air vehicles call themselves flying cars. However, while all flying cars are advanced air vehicles, all advanced air vehicles are not necessarily flying cars. Take VTOLs—Vertical Take Off and Landing vehicles— for example, and electric VTOLs (eVTOLs). They often call themselves flying cars for ease of reference but there are some significant differences.

VTOLs and eVTOLs will use the airspace above urban areas, while flying cars can use both airspace and roads. VTOLs and eVTOLS—like the name suggests—can take off and land vertically, and hence require minimum space. Flying cars almost always need a short runway or open area to take off.

VTOLs are large and heavy, and need large parking spaces, which may mean they will never become a door-to-door transportation option. Whereas, flying cars, despite requiring a short runway, will allow the driver or the flyer to land at a small airport—and simply drive off home, right into the garage thanks to its road capabilities.

(Clockwise from Top Left) Klein Vision's  AirCar during its its first inter-city flight; Test flights of AeroMobil's The Flying Car experimental prototype; Kitty Hawk’s Heaviside eVTOL vehicle; Joby’s full-scale, all-electric prototype preparing for flight in California

“Even when adopted by the general public in 10-30 years, most eVTOLs will remain a solution for relatively short distances. They will function like the aerial metro system,” says AeroMobil’s Hessel.

Players like Joby Aviation have made great strides, and recently started testing their all-electric VTOL with NASA as a part of its AAM National Campaign. The campaign aims to help new aviation markets safely develop a system of air transport that can move people and cargo using new aircraft technologies like air taxis, drones and other inventive vehicles.

According to a press release from NASA, “This is the first time the National Campaign will be flying with an industry partner’s air taxi design”. This is a major step towards advancing airspace mobility in the US.

Joby Aviation hopes to launch its air taxis by 2024 which is in line with other players in the market like the Lilium jet which is a five-person eVOTL. Terrafugia hopes to put its eVOTL Terrafugia Transition on the road by 2022, and Aeromobil hopes to launch its flying car by 2023.

Challenges galore

The AirCar by Slovakia-based Klein Vision—an advanced engineering company—completed its first inter-city flight between two cities in Slovakia in July, becoming the first flying car in the world to do an inter-city flight. Describing the challenges of designing a flying car, its founder and CEO Stefan Klein tells Forbes India, “Cars can be heavy and must have a good grip on the road. Aircraft must be very light, with wings to achieve a lift force to hold them in the air. Combining these opposite ‘worlds’ into one single object that also has a sleek shape and sports car-like look, with the performance of a renowned aircraft manufacturer, is one of the biggest challenges.”

The AirCar requires a runway or stretch of road of at least 450 metres to take off. Getting certified for both car-mode and aircraft-mode separately and dealing with current emission standards are some of the significant problems the company currently faces.
The advancements to air mobility will also require changes to existing infrastructure—like veriports that are different from helipads and airports. It is still unclear what these landing areas would look like, but they could crop up on building tops, parking lots, roofs of shopping malls, and so on. The vertiports could also double up as charging stations for electric flying cars and terminals for passengers.

“The constraints range from the lack of take off or landing sites in urban centres to difficulties in scaling up air traffic management systems sufficiently and synchronising these with existing aeroplane travel. It is expected that there will be more legislative challenges arising as these technologies evolve,” Klein explains.

Apart from that, it will also need the development of licensing procedures and training programmes for pilots, drivers and ground-based support systems and security systems to thwart sophisticated hacks into its computerised systems. According to Anastasopoulos, “[Flying cars] will likely classify as light-sport aircraft vessels, so a sport pilot license would be enough to operate them.” However, this simple license comes with its limitations: Cannot fly at night and cannot fly for compensation or hire. However, the plus-side is that it only requires 20 hours of flight time (15 hours flight training and 5 hours of solo flight).” He adds, ideally, advanced air vehicles will be self-driving in the far future.

While innovations in the field of air mobility are progressing rapidly, there isn’t much policy attention to them at present.

The far “luxe” future

The AeroMobil—initially founded by Klein—flying car AM4.0 is marketed as the world's first commercially viable flying car. With the AM4.0, the company is trying to carve its own niche among flying cars: Luxurious like a sports car or a yacht, with a price of 1.5 million euros.

Apart from its luxe, it also stands out from its competition as it is developed within the existing regulatory framework, and can get certified with the current legal requirements. It can also use existing infrastructure like all medium and small airports, and can be refuelled at gas stations.

“We aim to dominate the luxury segment of the door-to-door and mid-range of 100-500 miles, and don't see any other solution coming close to us,” says Aeromobil’s Hessel. The question of whether flying cars are a need or want of the future is yet to be seen. While air urban mobility options can open up great avenues for travel, the capex necessary with current technologies to build flying cars is very high, and it will take time before that can be countered.

However, some believe, like all other technology, the tech has to precede demand. “The demand never exists inherently for innovative technologies. It has to be created strategically. No consumer is free enough to demand flying cars, unless you show them how they will be more feasible or better than the currently available mobility options,” says Gagandeep Reehal, co-founder, CEO and CTO of India-based Minus Zero, a startup building fully autonomous cars in India.

Gagandeep Reehal and Gursimran Kalra, co-founders of Minus Zero have developed an autonomous three-wheeler prototype for Indian roads

Where does India stand?

With India’s growing population and middle-class adding more vehicles on the road, congestion, accidents, delays, and air pollution are daily problems. “India has 14 of the top 20 most polluted cities globally with over 2 million deaths linked to air pollution and over $100 billion oil import bill, so changing to cleaner technologies is critical,” says Rohan Rao, a partner at KPMG, India.

Currently, there is tremendous interest in the electric vehicles market with players like Ola, Hero Electric, Okinawa and Ather Energy bringing electric scooters that are comparable to internal combustion scooters in terms of price and features. But charging infrastructure remains primitive at best, and India is far behind compared to global players in terms of homegrown innovation. According to a KPMG report titled ‘2020 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index’, India ranked last in consumer acceptance of AV technology, and was in the bottom 10 countries for road quality, and ranked 29 out of 30 countries for its innovation capability.

While Minus Zero is building a different kind of mobility solution—autonomous vehicles—its deep tech and ground-up solutions may give a peek into what India needs to harness the flying car future. “Our proprietary innovation decreases R&D investment, go-to-market time and capex per vehicle significantly. Our autonomous vehicles will lie in the Rs 20-30 lakh range compared to Rs 2-2.5 crore per vehicle of other major players in the industry,” says Reehal. Its proprietary technology will be less dependent on extensive data and costly sensors like LIDAR, and will be tailored to Indian roads.

The way forward for India to play a prominent role in the future of mobility will be to rely on deep tech and hardware dominance. Reehal adds that there is a dearth of such startups in India to promote indigenous development of sensors, computer hardware, and so on. It requires a more incentivised approach from both the government and the investment community. “We can’t keep on relying on imported hardware for long, if you want to make India a global technology leader. These are a few concerns that we all need to start addressing together. Any deep-tech idea calls for a collaborative effort between all stakeholders involved,” says Reehal

Currently, there are mixed opinions on whether Indian skies will see flying cars in the near future. According to Anastasopoulos, “With challenges like policy and regulations, infrastructure, security concerns, cost efficiency and equity, only a small segment of travellers from developing countries would likely be able to afford advanced air vehicles initially.”

That said, companies like Vinata Aeromobility and The ePlane Company are eager to change the narrative. While the initial ride fare of the ePlane company will be almost double compared to Uber and Ola, the company is optimistic that it can soon make it comparable to taxi fares. The reduction will be brought about by the sheer volume of trips an air taxi will be able to make compared to a regular taxi.

While The ePlane Company has raised $1 million from investors like Speciale Invest, IIM-Ahmedabad’s CIIE.CO, FirstCheque, JavaCapital and Sharechat co-founder Farid Ahsan, the co-founders admit that it was difficult to raise capital. Vinata Mobility’s Iyer agrees that fundraising has been challenging. “Most investors and venture capitalists I approached did not believe the technology was viable.” The company has received seed stage funding from angel investor Mohan Paroha. Both companies say the recent amendments to drone regulations in India could pave the way for further legislation covering autonomous and AAM vehicles in the future.

The road ahead for eVOTLs is long, but looms promising. “The future of mobility looks exciting and challenging at the same time. Technological advancements will bring us closer to sustainable and zero-carbon emission energy alternatives, self-driving vehicles, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity, ultra-high-speed rail, and advanced air vehicles,” says Anastasopoulos.

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