Science fiction is one step closer to reality as several companies debut working prototypes for flying cars.
The American start-up Aska showed off its A5 model at the 2023 Consumer Electronics show. The A-5 is an electric vertical take off and landing vehicle, roughly the size of a standard SUV, that is reportedly capable of driving at 70 mph on the road and flying at speeds of up to 150 mph.
“What we see here is a revolution that happens once in a hundred years.” Guy Kaplinsky, Co-Founder and CEO of Aska, said during the presentation “People were dreaming about flying cars for years … what you see here is a drivable vehicle, and vertical takeoff and conventional takeoff, that can drive on the road and take off very quickly.”
Flying cars have fascinated the public for decades — “The Jetsons” helped popularize the concept back in 1962, but the idea is almost as old as the airplane itself, possibly older. One of the first attempts was made by Gustave Whitehead around 1901, before the Wright brothers’ breakthrough with the first controlled flight in 1903. Whitehead’s machine didn’t work, but by 1937 the Arrowbile had been created — the W-5 model could remove its wing and function as a car, but only 5 were made — it wasn’t commercially viable.
Throughout the late twentieth century several models of roadable airplanes were created, but none were available to the public or produced at scale. “Flying cars” have become synonymous with promised innovation that failed to materialize and with general disappointment in the current year. The A5 was not permitted to take-off at the CES, as it had not yet received FAA approval to fly in populated areas, but the company is hopeful that such approval could be coming within the month.
That being said, Aska is not alone in developing workable prototypes that have generated serious commercial interest.
Another aerospace firm, Joby, has reportedly partnered with Delta Airlines, Toyota and Uber to create an air-taxi service, which would initially be concentrated in a few large cities but eventually spread out to the hinterlands, following a similar growth model to Uber itself.
“Electric propulsion has enabled us to think differently about aircraft design and to develop a new class of aircraft.” JoeBen Bivert, founder and CEO of Joby Aviation, said, crediting breakthroughs in electric vehicles and battery technology with the concept’s new lease on life. Improved and lightweight composite materials have also been vital innovations in making the manufacture and flight of small passenger vehicles viable.
Joby has received a $75 million contract with the US Department of Defense and has received billions from investors and corporate partners. Other companies such as Archer, Vertical and Lithium are also developing similar vehicles.
Joby’s prototypes have reportedly exceeded 200 mph in airspeed and have an effective range of up to 150 miles, although they would typically be used for trips of around 50 miles.
“The eVTOL space is going to fundamentally change how people get to an airport.” Ranjan Goswami, senior vice president of customer experience design at Delta, said. eVTOLs are reportedly create less noise and more environmentally friendly than traditional helicopters. They’re also cheaper to maintain as their engines have fewer moving parts.
Delta plans to use its pre-existing infrastructure at various airports to shuttle customers to their airport terminals while bypassing traffic and congestion on the ground, with the price point being close to what a premium rideshare service like Uber Black might cost, making it a somewhat affordable option.
While the industry is still in its infancy, and there are significant regulatory hurdles left to overcome, many observers are bullish on the sector’s future. Morgan Stanley projects that the market for eVTOLs will be worth $1 trillion by 2040 and $9 trillion by 2050. However, poor economic conditions in the short term represent significant headwinds for investors who are still years away from a marketable product – certification by the FAA for new aircraft models can take anywhere from 5-10 years.
“We are working with the same energy as the industry itself.” An FAA representative told CNBC. “Innovation cannot come at the expense of safety, it has to go hand in hand.”
Both Joby and Aska’s models would accommodate 4-5 passengers, but while Joby is the faster aircraft, Aska’s A5 has maintained functionality on the ground — it is simultaneously an aircraft and a car, can charge with the same equipment other EVs use, and its foldable wings allow it to drive on the road and fit in a standard parking space.
“Aska is positioned as a new generation vehicle that combines the convenience of an automobile with the ease and efficiency of VTOL and STOL flight.” Kaplinsky said.
Joby and its competitor Archer expect their vehicles to go into service in 2025; Aska expects the commercial version of the A5 to hit the market in 2026.