In 2010, Google co-founder Larry Paige funded his secret “flying car” project through start-up named Zee Aero. Only five years later, Paige invested millions into another flying car start up called Kitty Hawk. With the triple technological threat of improved battery technology, more powerful electric motors, and intuitive flying software, Silicon Valley seems to be the hotspot for flying car innovation.
In a recent Vox article featuring flying car innovation in Silicon Valley, Brian German, an aerospace researcher at Georgia Tech, argues that lighter and more powerful electric motors, batteries that can store more energy, and more sophisticated aviation software could transform the market for small electric airplanes.
VTOL Flying Technology
Zee Aero, Uber, and Joby Aviation – all with flying car prototypes in the works – agreed that the best approach to cornering the commuter market would be to use autonomous Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) vehicles. Zee Aero’s prototype, for example, has eight vertical propellers that are used for liftoff, while there are two in the back providing vertical thrust. Once Zee Aero’s flying car reaches soaring altitude, the propellers can be strategically turned off to save power.
Similar to Zee Aero’s VTOL design, Joby Aviation’s two-seater S2 airplane, still in development, is an environmentally-friendly VTOL that requires 5x’s less energy than conventional combustion transportation at 5x’s the door-to-door speed. Armed with 12 propellers for take-off that fold up once the aircraft is airborne, the S2 is yet another example of electric VTOL innovation.
Without the need for a runway, VTOL’s can take off from building tops, parking facilities, and strategically placed launch pads in and around major metropolitan locations. According to Vox, VTOL’s can land in small “vertiports” that could fit in a suburban parking lot or on the top floor of an urban parking garage.
Uber’s Flying Taxi
Uber recently announced its search for its own flying car technology. With the company setting its eyes on The Ehang 184, an eco-friendly low altitude personal Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (AAV), Uber’s vision to offer “transportation as reliable as water, everywhere, for everyone,” is close to becoming a reality.
Featured in the company’s white paper highlighting its VTOL future, Uber estimated that tiny electric airplanes could reduce the travel time from San Jose to San Francisco from 2 hours (during rush hour) to 15 minutes. The trip would cost a customer $129 initially but over a few years, the price could drop to $43. Compared to the average cab ride fare of $100 for the same San Jose – San Fran journey that is an attractive price and time saver – especially for upper-class commuters.
Tesla’s Battery Technology
Battery technology, whether it’s in the form of supercapacitors or improved lithium-ion batteries, will play a critical role in the small aircraft industry. From longer flight times on a single charge to greater carrying capacity, battery innovation is an instrumental piece of the aviation puzzle.
German, according to Vox, predicts the energy density of batteries will need to approximately double for small electric planes to really take off.
“Right now, batteries that you could actually put in an airplane wouldn’t let you go very far. But you give it a few more years, and the writings on the wall that you will be able to make a very practical aircraft.”
Tesla, with the recent opening of its $5 Billion Gigafactory, is focused on improving battery cell innovation. The key ingredient in Tesla’s worldwide electric car dominance: lithium-ion battery innovation. This may spill nicely into the flying car industry. According to a recent iReviews article, Gigafactory “offers unprecedented economies of scale for lithium-ion battery production, lowering the price from $190 per kWh in April 2016 to an estimated $130 per kWh once complete.” This translates into a 30% reduction in battery production costs.
The Future of Flying Cars
With battery technology estimated to improve by 5-8 percent per year and Silicon Valley determined to get their prototypes airborne, the future of VTOL airplanes seems rather bright. According to Uber’s recent white paper, flying taxis may transition from being a luxury service for only the wealthy to a viable option for middle-class commuters. In most cases, improved technology usually results in affordable prices for consumers – making it accessible to everyone. Certainly, there are FAA regulations and safety issues to consider before seeing our skies filled with flying cars, but the technology seems to be moving in the right direction.