Detractors and Investors Fight for the Future of Flying Cars
A number of companies are investigating whether flying cars are a way of reducing congestion in our cities, and the tech already has as many foes as it does friends. Daniel Davies looks at the electric flying-car company Lilium to find out if its ambition to have flying taxis in the skies by 2025 is realistic
A small pod rises from the ground as billows of smoke pour out from underneath. That’s the vision of a flying car as seen through film director Ridley Scott’s eyes in the movie Blade Runner. But it’s by no means the only interpretation, because flying cars are as synonymous with the future as androids or hoverboards. Unlike those visions of the future, though, the flying car may be upon us sooner rather than later.
Whether that’s a good or bad thing is still up for debate. Elon Musk, for one, has been quick to identify the potential pitfalls flying cars pose. “If somebody doesn’t maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you,” Musk said. “Your anxiety level will not decrease as a result of things that weigh a lot buzzing around your head.”
Despite Musk’s misgivings, though, there are a number of companies who believe they can put cars in the sky without the risk of having alloys and hubcaps raining down and slicing through people’s skulls. These companies aren’t just working on flying cars to fulfil the wildest dreams of eighties sci-fi writers, but because they believe flying cars can change the world for the better.
One such company is Lilium, a German startup who promise its flying cars/jets/taxis will contribute to “a healthier, cleaner and more affordable world”. How, I hear you ask. Well, as Lilium points out, because its electric flying cars can travel long distances much faster, living in the countryside while working in the city would become much more feasible, which means properties in the city would also increase in affordability, and as a added bonus for people who choose to stay in cities, there would be less traffic and less noise.
Lilium isn’t flying solo in wanting to make cars airborne, and other big hitters like Uber and Airbus have their own ambitions, but, while the potential benefits are undeniable, Musk does have a point: will we ever really be comfortable with the a flying taxi?
Recognising Lilium’s potential for disruption
Musk may not be a fan of the technology, but there are plenty of others who do see its potential. Lilium, for instance, has just hired a head of recruitment from Tesla, a vice president of production from Airbus and a chief commercial officer from the ride-sharing app Gett. On his appointment as VP of production, the former Airbus VP of assembly, Dirk Gebser, said: “I admire the disruptiveness and innovation of Lilium‘s vision to change the way people will commute. I am looking forward to building a robust, modern and green production capability to secure a safe ramp up to the many aircrafts to come.”
This is the next stage in our rapid evolution from an idea to the production of a commercially successful aircraft
In recruiting an expert in aeronautical engineering from one of the pioneers of the aerospace industry, as well as staff from some of the most innovative companies on the planet, Lilium has made a real statement of intent, but the company has done a lot more than just take staff from innovative and established transport companies. Lilium has also secured more than $100m in investment from asset management groups and passionate backers like Skype’s co-founder Niklas Zennström and Twitter’s co-founder and former CEO, Ev Williams.
“This investment is a tremendously important step for Lilium as it enables us to make the five-seat jet a reality,” said Lilium co-founder and CEO, Daniel Wiegand. “This is the next stage in our rapid evolution from an idea to the production of a commercially successful aircraft that will revolutionise the way we travel in and around the world’s cities. It makes Lilium one of the best funded electric aircraft projects in the world. Our backers recognise that Lilium’s innovative ... technology puts us in the lead in this exciting new industry, with no other company promising the economy, speed, range and low-noise levels of the Lilium Jet.”
Backers and prospective employees appear to recognise the potential for disruption Lilium possesses and are happy to sign up, but all that means nothing if Lilium can’t, as its chief commercial officer, Remo Gerber, said, “Move from a niche transport vehicle to a mass-transport one”.
Weight will always be a problem for flying cars
In April, Lilium completed its maiden voyage at an airfield near Munich. It wasn’t quite an air taxi that the company demoed, but rather a small aircraft, powered by 36 small propellers and running on electricity, which took off vertically, flew around for a few minutes with no passengers, and then came back to Earth.
While it looked like a modest beginning to uninitiated, Wiegand was eager to point out to WIRED that following the successful demonstration, "The basic challenges are solved".
A single engine failure does not have consequences for the aircraft’s safety or stability
That’s not exactly true though because Lilium has quite a few other basic challenges to overcome before its flying taxis can really takeoff. Firstly, in its demonstration the flying plane had no additional weight to carry and flew for a short time. Scaling this up to the point where it can travel 300km per hour for one hour on a single charge with five passengers, as the company predicts it will be able to do, will be a challenge to say the least.
Even if Lilium does manage to figure out how it can get all that weight to travel at that speed, safely, it would still have the problem of building places to takeoff and land, as well as gaining approval to fly in the first place.
But the biggest challenge Lilium and other flying-car companies have to contend with is dispelling the narrative promoted by Elon Musk and others that these types of flying vehicles are dangerous. Transporting five people means that Lilium will need a pretty big battery, which will add to the weight it’s transporting and more weight means the consequences of making a mistake become increasingly lethal.
“A single engine failure does not have consequences for the aircraft’s safety or stability,” Lilium says. Getting that message across could be the company’s biggest challenge.
Flying taxis in less than ten years
Rather than being overawed by those challenges, Lilium believes that it will begin to introduce on-demand air transport by 2025, and at that point you will be able to book one of its jets. So in less than ten years Lilium thinks it will be able to iron out all of those considerable kinks.
Let’s say that’s possible. What will the future look like with Lilium jets offering an alternative to the traditional taxi? Well Lilium’s taxis take off like a helicopter and fly like a jet, meaning that they don’t need a runway and will instead takeoff from a network of small and inexpensive landing pads and central places in cities. So in the future instead of heading out the front door of your building every morning, you could head to the roof to catch a Lilium jet.
Booking one of the company’s air taxis will work much like it does with the regular road-dwelling taxis we have now, so once you’ve found a local landing pad all you’ll need to do to arrange a pickup is log onto Lilium’s accompanying app and the company will send a jet to you in just a few minutes.
Speed is really the flying cars main asset, and the speed of arranging a pickup is matched by the speed at which you will travel. Imagine being able to travel 70km in 15 minutes or being able to reduce your hour commute to 15 minutes.
At this stage of its development it’s not technology that Lilium is selling. Much like the other futuristic travel options like Hyperloop, what Lilium is selling is time, giving people back their travel times and moving them further away from the office. Because of this, it’s right that Lilium’s aspirations remain lofty, even if, for the moment at least, its flying car can’t reach the same heights.
Lilium was asked to contribute to this feature, but said that currently its sole focus is on developing its five-seater vehicle