Flying cars are not far away: at least some are under testing

Google Cofounder Larry Page’s secretly-funded tech startup Zee Aero is recently spotted testing its prototype in Hollister, California.

    Jan 03, 2017 5:43 PM  PT
Flying cars are not far away: at least some are under testing
author: Claire   

Flying cars used to only exist in a fiction novel or movie, but many tech companies are trying to bring that dream into a reality. We've seen Uber and Airbus striving to design a flying machine in the next decade; Toyota also filed a patent with hopes to one day start creating flying vehicles. Now Google Cofounder Larry Page's secretly-funded tech startup Zee Aero is recently spotted testing its prototype in Hollister, California.

The location is a small town of about 40000 residents. According to the Monterey Herald, people have been seeing the flying car in action with increased frequency in recent months. The prototype is hovering about 25 feet from the ground, and is capable of landing swiftly straight down. 

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a registered record of nine aircrafts built by Zee Aero. They are two electric-powered gliders, two piston-powered planes and five "flying machines" with multiple motors. That five are speculated by the public as the company's "personal aircraft"—"A safe, quiet, easy to control, efficient, and compact aircraft configuration is enabled through the combination of multiple vertical lift rotors, tandem wings, and forward thrust propellers."

Why do so many tech pioneers and auto giants want to make a flying car? As transportation continues to become part of essential living, public roads are getting increasingly congested. According to transportation research firm Inrix, traffic jam costs the US economy more than $120 billion annually and Americans in total are spending 8 billion hours a year stuck in traffic. Exploring the sky for daily transportation has become a hot research topic that many tech companies want to delve into.

Currently, Airbus's Project Vahana is planning to start testing its prototype in Oregon next year. German's e-Volo that resembles a giant drone has already lifted a pilot in the sky, although at very low speeds. Uber's flying taxi aims to be designed and manufactured within five years and at full service in the next five years. China's Ehang showcased its passenger drone already in CES 2016, and will be testing the product in Nevada, US.

But who will be the first to really carry people for a reasonable distance, with stability, safety and efficiency? It's too early to tell. The main battle revolves around battery technology, electric motors and aviation software. Different from a traditional airplane that has a cumbersome combustion engine, these flying cars, drones or machines are equipped with lightweight electric motors so that they could fly seamlessly. A battery improvement could make a flying car move farther, just like an electric vehicle. A mature aviation software system could control the multiple motors installed on the machine with more accuracy than human-control, and that's why quite a few tech companies design their flying cars to be fully autonomous - to avoid human errors while operating such a compact, yet complex machine in the air.

Although we're still thinking of flying cars as somewhat surreal, there is a possibility that it could enter the market and be commonly used in the near future, just like the time when Tesla's EVs first came out.