O flying car! Where art thou?

The prototype of Malaysia’s flying car was to have been launched by the end of 2019, but 2020 has arrived and we have yet to see the vehicle so enthusiastically promoted by Entrepreneur Development Minister Redzuan Yusof.

I’m uncertain about the intention of having our own flying car but it’s non-unveiling after all the hype appears to ooze poor tech literacy.

When the flying car project was announced, the public naturally assumed it would be for the layperson. But it was later reported that it was for cargo delivery and surveillance purposes. This makes no sense. An autonomous drone would and already does both these things without a human on board. In fact it does it better without humans on board as it isn’t burdened with carrying anyone.

Our entrepreneur development minister also said last year that the flying car would be able to travel from Kuala Lumpur to Penang within an hour. However, we learned that the flying car that was being developed by Aerodyne would be able to travel at 60 km/h and be able to fly for 30 to 90 minutes. A person with elementary-level math knowledge would be able to tell there’s something wrong with this.

The point-to-point distance from Kuala Lumpur to Penang is 279 km. This means the flying car would take a whopping 4.65 hours to traverse the 279 km, a far cry from the one hour promised by the minister (279 km divided by 60 km/h). This is even slower than driving there, which would take slightly less than 4 hours. And we’re not even taking into account the fact that the battery will only last for a maximum of 1.5 hours.

Though, in Aerodyne’s defence, its CEO Kamarul Muhamed did say that the company wasn’t actively developing the flying car yet as it was not a priority and that something like this would probably take off earliest in 2025. Finally some sensible words.

A wise man once said, “flying cars already exist, they’re called helicopters”. Flying cars have always been a dream for many; and for good reason. They conjure up images of a fantastical future, and it’s something we’re accustomed to seeing or reading in sci-fi movies and novels.

But do flying cars make sense? Let’s take a look.

As of now, there’s only one feasible way to make anything fly: by creating a region of high and low pressure which creates lift. For anything that needs to take off vertically, ie without a runway, propellers are needed. And as you’ve probably noticed, propellers are noisy. Very, very noisy. A normal sized drone will on average more than triple the loudness of an area (about a 20dB increase in loudness). Now visualise a drone that’s 10 times bigger. Can you imagine how much noise that would create?

In addition, flying cars are a huge safety concern. If a car breaks down, it stops. If a flying car breaks down, it crashes to the ground; and more often than not, in a densely populated urban area.

We can’t be handing out pilot’s licences to everyone, and this means flying cars will almost definitely need to be equipped with full autopilot functionality. This is an enormous technical hurdle to overcome as the technology to fully automate urban flight has not been developed yet. We don’t even have fully autonomous cars after years of research and development.

I expect fully automated urban flight to take at least half a decade.

Aviation safety and regulation will need to be exceptionally stringent (and rightfully so) if flying cars are to be a reality. A tech tip: When thinking of how long a certain technology will take before it becomes mainstream, first look at how many regulatory hurdles it will need to overcome. As a rule of thumb, realistic technology hurdles are easier to tackle than winning over bickering, politicking regulators of government agencies.

The reason I’m so bearish on flying cars is exactly because of how many technical AND regulatory hurdles it will need to overcome before it takes off (pun intended).

Delivery drones are a good case in point. We’ve had the drone technology to be able to deliver packages autonomously for the last few years. But in spite of the best efforts of the likes of Amazon and UPS, it’s sadly still not a reality in most places, including Malaysia.

We don’t have to look far. Cyberjaya-based Average Drone made a splash mid-last year when they announced that they’ll soon be delivering food via their drones to Cyberjaya residents. But it has been radio silence since then. We’ve got aviation regulation to thank for that.

Another major issue with flying cars is battery capacity. I don’t see lithium-ion battery technology advancing fast enough to be able to have the energy capacity to travel between distant cities in the near future. But flying car companies shouldn’t even be looking at that. For inter-city travel, commercial planes will beat flying cars any day.

This is due to the inherent drawbacks of current flying car technology. The lack of wide wings, a jet engine and an aerodynamic body like those of planes means much reduced efficiency. There is no way flying cars as they are being developed now, which are essentially drones-on-steroids, will be able to compete on speed and fuel efficiency with commercial planes.

The real pain point is intra-city commuting and that’s exactly what flying car companies should be focusing on. I see a whole lot of people who will be willing to pay a premium to be able to get to another part of the city faster via flying taxis amidst worsening road traffic.

A good model I see for the future has been demonstrated by the Uber-Hyundai partnership. The two companies jointly unveiled plans for putting flying taxis in the sky as early as 2023. Uber will leverage on Hyundai’s decades of automotive manufacturing expertise and Hyundai will leverage on Uber’s ride hailing capability. It will initially have a human pilot and be electric-powered.

Flying cars as an additional mode of transport is certainly viable in the not too distant future. These will be commercially operated by a few companies that will have rooftop terminals (similar to a rooftop helipad) or land-based ones at the periphery of the city. In fact Uber already offers helicopter rides from Manhattan to JFK Airport for a cool US$200. This will provide it with valuable data for the eventual launch of its electric flying taxi in a few years.

I for one can’t wait for something like this to be implemented in Malaysia. But you certainly won’t see me holding my breath.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.