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Drones May Deliver Flying Cars within a Decade

And two companies are making autonomous flying cars look like a serious possibility

May 10, 2016

There’s a good chance that drones may deliver flying cars within the next decade. And two companies are at the forefront of making autonomous flying cars look like a serious possibility.

One is Chinese drone-maker Ehang, which unveiled a prototype of its Ehang 184 passenger drone at CES in Las Vegas, NV, in January. The other is U.S.-based flying car developer Terrafugia, which obtained FAA permission in December 2015 to flight-test a 1/10-scale model of an autonomous aerial vehicle (AAV) it calls TF-X. Both AAVs are powered by electric motors and designed for vertical takeoff and landing with relatively short flights in between.

The Ehang 184 resembles a typical X8 drone, with two propellers at the end of each of four arms and a single-seat cabin at the center. The arms fold up when not in use, so the 5-foot-tall, 440-pound aircraft can fit in the same parking space as an average car. From a seat that the company likes to compare to what you’d find in a Formula One car — which doesn’t exude comfort — the operator can select destinations on a tablet console. Ehang also plans to have a Flight Command Center, which would track all aircraft in flight.

On the other hand, Terrafugia’s TF-X looks a little more akin to the flying cars of sci-fi movies. For takeoff and landing, it will use two electric motor pods with rotors. In level flight, the rotors fold up and a more conventional aircraft engine powers a ducted fan at the rear of the aircraft. It seats four passengers who use a console to choose destinations and approve landing sites. TF-X then plots a course, using geofencing to avoid tower-controlled airspace and other obstacles, such as thunderstorms.

Real flying cars

Ehang and Terrafugia are both talking about the kind of vehicle you could hop into and soar above rush-hour traffic on your way across town to the office. Everything else that’s come close to taking off over the years has been more of a street-legal airplane, meant for pilots to store in the garage and drive to the airport to take off for longer cross-country trips. That’s not really a flying car in any sense that Jetsons fans would recognize, not to mention that these vehicles are only legal for licensed pilots to fly.

Terrafugia chose to start with a more easily accomplished road aircraft, the Transition, which it plans to begin selling within a year. The FAA classifies the Transition as a light-sport aircraft, so operators need at least a sport pilot’s license to fly it. Drones, on the other hand, could make flying cars accessible to the average commuter.
After all, the whole point is that AAVs fly themselves. Ehang and Terrafugia both say that their operators won’t need to know how to manually fly a plane, just how to make safe decisions, like where to land or when to take emergency action, and tell the drone’s computer to execute them.

“One of the things that takes the longest to learn how to do to become a pilot is the basic stick-and-rudder flying, and that type of operation is something that computers are very, very good at,” says Terrafugia CEO Carl Dietrich. “Once you say, yes, it’s okay to land there, then the vehicle can go ahead and execute that type of landing with a higher level of confidence than a human operator.”

This convenience comes at a cost — these aircraft don’t have a way for the passenger to manually take over in the event of an emergency. What if something goes wrong?

Ehang says that if the 184’s artificial intelligence (AI) detects damage or a malfunction of the AAV’s flight systems, Ehang 184 will land at the closest possible landing site, although it’s not clear what happens if it’s not possible to get there in time — the kind of situation where a human pilot might be more able to improvise.
Operators would also be able to order the vehicle to stop and hover in midair by clicking an emergency option on the tablet app, although Ehang hasn’t said what would happen next. Presumably, the Flight Command Center would step in to assist, possibly by troubleshooting or remotely operating the aircraft.

TF-X operators can opt not to land if a site looks unsafe, but the aircraft will declare an emergency and go in for a horizontal landing at the nearest airport if the operator aborts landings at three sites after a long flight. If things go completely wrong, says Dietrich, “the operator still has the ultimate manual override, which is pulling a handle and deploying a parachute for the entire vehicle, but it would not be an expected part of normal operation of the aircraft.”

That makes some pilots nervous, says Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Senior Communications Advisor Dick Knapinski, including him. “As a pilot, it still comes down to good piloting skills. And speaking as a pilot, I want that aspect of good piloting skills to be a factor in case I need to be a factor,” he says. “If the technology breaks down, eventually you have to trust your flying skills.”

The average commuter may accept the lack of direct control more easily, especially once they see the technology working safely. “There’s certainly a portion of the community that will go, ‘Well, other people seem to be riding in it and it seems to be fine. I’ll ride in it, and I don’t have to think about this,’ ” Knapinski says.
The 184’s cockpit doesn’t scream comfort, but the utilitarian design is just the first pass. Maybe a later model might sport more features — like cup holders. Ehang
Waiting a little longer

It’s going to be a while before you can park a flying car in your garage, however. Terrafugia expects to be ready to make its first TF-X sales in eight to 12 years.

Ehang sounds more ambitious, having boldly declared at CES that it will have the first production 184s ready by December 2016, but the company admits it will take longer than that before the X8 is legal to fly in the U.S. That’s why there was no demonstration flight at CES.

“We are working with the FAA to set up all procedures for the 184. At this time, we’re not sure when the 184 will be fully legal to fly in the U.S.,” says Ehang U.S. Director of Marketing Craig Glover, after the company declined an interview. Meanwhile, Ehang claims that it has made several test flights in China, where the company is based, but hasn’t released video or photos of the flights.

At the moment, companies need an exemption from the FAA to fly unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes, and that includes flight tests. Terrafugia received an exemption in December for a 1/10-scale model of TF-X, which is being tested in a wind tunnel at MIT as well as in flight. The company says it plans to have the first full-scale prototype in the air by 2018.

Ehang will need to go through a similar certification process, although given that the company has already built a full-scale prototype, it’s not likely to need permission to test a scale model first. An FAA spokesperson told Drone360, “We spoke briefly with an Ehang representative at [CES] in Las Vegas and advised him to contact our UAS office. There have been no further developments.”

Once the aircraft are certified, both companies will have to work out the details of operator certification. Dietrich is hoping that future flying-car users can obtain an operator’s permit specific to the TF-X; it wouldn’t qualify them to fly anything else, but it would allow them to operate a TF-X without a full-fledged pilot’s license. Training would focus on weather, emergency procedures, and the drone’s user interface, but it would skip stick-and-rudder flying and most aviation regulations, since the drone’s AI would be programmed to stay within legal bounds on its own.

It’s not yet clear whether the FAA will accept a proposal for that kind of permit. However, if it does, Ehang 184 operators will probably receive a similar permit for the 184, although the company hasn’t released details for its plans.

All told, Terrafugia expects to spend the next decade sorting out the red tape. “Everything with the FAA takes years,” says Dietrich. Ehang is keeping its cards pretty close to the vest but likely faces a similar time frame. That means flying-car enthusiasts, too, will be waiting a few more years.
The prototype Aerocar, designed by Molt Taylor, in flight. EAA/Jim Koepnick
History of the future

Of course, this isn’t the first time optimistic reports have proclaimed that flying cars were just over the horizon. No less a figure than Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I ace and post-war race car driver, declared in a 1924 Popular Science piece that flying cars would be on the market within 20 years.

Two years later, Henry Ford debuted the first prototype of his Ford Flivver, a small single-seat plane designed to be a commuter aircraft for the masses. In one sense, it was an early success; Ford test pilot Harry Brooks did fly the Flivver door-to-door from his home to the Ford Laboratories every day for two years. That ended sadly in February 1928, when Brooks, flying another Flivver prototype, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

The engine failure that caused the fatal crash wasn’t a design flaw, but the result of poorly conceived improvisational maintenance on Brooks’ part. Still, Ford discontinued the program. Charles Lindbergh, who flew a Ford Flivver in 1927, ranked it among the worst aircraft he had ever piloted.

That’s been a long-running challenge for flying cars, according to Knapinski. “It’s been said when you merge a car and an airplane together, you get, most times, a very bad airplane and a very bad car combined in one unit,” he says.

The 1940s and 1950s became a golden age of flying car prototypes. The ConvAirCar, built in 1946 by the company that would later make the first Atlas rockets, is a classic example. Engineers at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft mounted a detachable assembly of wings, a tail, and an aircraft engine atop a car body, and, surprisingly, it worked.

The first prototype, the Model 116, made 66 successful test flights, but its successor, the Model 118, succumbed to one of the pitfalls of its hybrid nature: It ran out of fuel and crashed because the pilot had mistakenly checked the automobile fuel gauge rather than the aircraft fuel gauge. Its designers built a second prototype using the original wings and a new car body, but the design never took off commercially.

Up to now, the flying car that came closest to commercial success was the Aerocar. Engineer Moulton “Molt” Taylor built the first prototype in 1949. In five minutes, a single operator could unfold the wings and connect a propeller shaft and a push propeller to the rear of the car. Taylor built six prototypes, two of which are still flying today, but by the late 1950s, he was unable to find enough buyers to justify production.

In 1956, Ford tried his hand at flying cars again, this time with a ducted-fan concept car. Throughout the 1950s, ducted fans were the next big thing in flying cars, and the Army quickly developed an interest in the technology as an alternative to helicopters. Several companies, most notably Piasecki, built “flying Jeep” prototypes for the Army, but as the Vietnam War drew more attention to helicopters, interest shifted away from ducted-fan flying Jeeps.

After a century of failed attempts, the idea of flying cars still resonates with Americans. Popular science fiction takes it as given that the future contains flying cars. Now, finally, those cars may be a near-future reality.

The time is right

One of the biggest factors making autonomous flying cars look plausible is the recent drive to develop a clear set of rules and regulations for drone operations in the U.S.

“We’re looking at what’s going on with the unmanned aircraft rules for becoming an operator of an unmanned aircraft, because a lot of the types of operation that we’re talking about as ways of interacting with vehicles are sort of similar to unmanned vehicles, so we’re citing a lot of that work as precedence,” says Dietrich.

Self-driving cars could provide another important precedent, as authorities like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) work out how an unmanned vehicle can operate and how to deal with the complexities and challenges that arise. NHTSA acknowledged in February that the AI in Google’s self-driving cars could count as the driver for some regulatory purposes, which could one day pave the way for certification for AAVs like the Ehang 184 and the Terrafugia TF-X.

Self-driving cars could also play a big role in getting commuters comfortable with the idea of trusting an autonomous vehicle to move them from Point A to Point B, and consumer comfort may ultimately be the factor that determines whether the future actually has flying cars, or just another handful of abandoned prototypes. After all, a lack of interest from potential buyers did keep the Aerocar from taking off.

At Terrafugia, Dietrich is optimistic. “The level of interest [in TF-X] is quite high, quite a bit higher than Transition, even though Transition is a much nearer-term product,” he says.

If several decades of popular culture and engineering obsession are any indication, one thing is clear: Many people still want flying cars. Drones just might deliver.

Note: A version of this story appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Drone360 magazine.
Featured image: Terrafugia