Flying cars are staples of many science fiction films but none has managed to capture the imagination of audiences like the flying DeLorean in the 1980s classic Back to the Future starring Michael J. Fox. Watching that movie made all of us wonder: When will we be able to fly in a car?

Actually, people have been looking forward to flying cars since early last century. In 1940, Henry Ford was quoted as saying: “Mark my word: a combination of airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”

Well, it’s been a long time coming but flying cars are finally about to arrive. Self-driving cars — once also thought of as the stuff of science fiction — is already starting to happen and it’s just a few years before flying cars start to become a reality. Actually, when you say “flying car”, you’re likely to be referring to one of two concepts. A flying car could mean any small, car-sized vehicle that can fly through the air. It could also mean a hybrid vehicle that can both fly through the air and be driven on the road. There are about a dozen start-ups working on a flying car and each is pursuing a version that is either a pure flying vehicle or a hybrid one that can both fly and drive.

PURE FLYING MACHINE

Perhaps it’s only fitting that we look at DeLorean first since we started this article with a mention of DeLorean’s flying DMC-12 from Back to the Future. Back in real life, the real DeLorean company is indeed working on a flying vehicle which it calls the DR-7. Ironically, it’s not designed to be driven but is purely a flying machine. Kitty Hawk was where the Wright brothers worked on the world’s first airplane. It’s also the name of a flying car company funded by Google co-founder Larry Page. Helming the project is Sebastian Thrun, a self-driving car pioneer. But its vehicle also doesn’t seem to be designed for driving on the streets. Video clips from the company show an aircraft that’s designed to operate over water.For those types of flying cars that can actually be driven on a highway, we have to look at companies like AeroMobil 3.0, a Slovakian company that’s developing a car with wings that can unfold when you want to transition from driving to flying. Apparently it uses normal petrol and can fit into a standard parking space.

Terrafugia is another company working on a flying vehicle that can double as a car. Like AeroMobil’s flying car, it also features folding wings and is aptly named: Transition.But it’s not just start-ups that are working on flying cars. European aircraft giant Airbus is working on several types of flying vehicles including something it calls Pop.Up, a two-passenger pod that can clip onto a set of wheels for driving or hang under a quadcopter for flying. If you find all of this fascinating, you can Google these other flying car projects and see all the cool concepts out there: Lilium Jet, EHang 184, S2 and Volocopter. The technology to make flying cars is upon us and most of the companies mentioned so far have projects that are already far beyond the concept stage. Many have working prototypes. So, it’s not a technological issue that would hold back the mass rollout of flying cars.

GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE

One of the chief challenges of a flying car industry is economics. Especially at the initial stage, a flying car would cost a bomb and only multi-millionaire businessmen would be able to afford these things. Although figures vary considerably from project to project, it’s been estimated that a flying car could cost as much as US$10 million (RM42.5 million). Perhaps flying cars can replace sports cars and yachts as the new status symbol for rich tycoons. But it won’t be affordable for the typical person probably for decades to come.

The other obvious challenge is that it won’t be easy to operate such vehicles. Presumably, a person would need to have both a driving and a flying licence to drive/fly these things. There’s also the issue of Air Traffic Control. Our city skylines aren’t exactly designed for cars to fly through. How are you going to make sure flying cars don’t crash into each other mid-air as they zip through the city?

For a solution to this, we can look at the self-driving car industry. It’s well established that self-driving cars are much safer than human-driven cars. So maybe flying cars should be autonomously flown as well. In other words, humans don’t fly it but instruct it to fly to a certain destination and the computer takes over. This would remove human error from the equation. But how many people would dare to travel in a flying vehicle with no pilot? Some surveys have shown that only a tiny minority of people — about 10 per cent — actually trust self-driving cars. Imagine what the figure would be for self-flying cars!

Who knows how long it’ll be before flying cars become as commonplace as the cars we see on the road today. I suspect not even in our lifetime although the technology to build them is already here. Of course, all the start-ups working on flying cars hope that someday they’ll become mainstream transportation vehicles. But in the short term, they’ll inevitably be high-end recreational toys for the rich and famous. For the rest of us, we can catch a glimpse of the future of transportation by watching the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics where Toyota’s flying car, called “SkyDrive”, is supposed to be used to help light up the Olympic flame.

Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. reach him at oonyeoh@gmail.com

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