By Ian Constance, Chief Executive Officer at the Advanced Propulsion Centre

The concept of flying cars has been around for a long time, although up until now it has been nothing more than a figment of the imagination – perhaps best characterised in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Ian Fleming’s children’s story of 1968, in which an inventor turns a broken-down car into an adventurous flying machine.

Now, almost 50 years on, and through rapid technology developments and innovation between the automotive and aerospace sectors, we are seeing serious efforts to turn the concept from science fiction into fact.

People love their cars. When we hit 17-years-old the car is a new expression of freedom. Some give their cars names, others lovingly restore them and hand them down to the next generation. So, cars are far more than a piece of technology – they are a part of our lives.

Cars are relevant to individuals and the UK economy – with a car rolling off a British production line every 18 seconds, we are the third largest car producer in Europe and the automotive industry keeps more than 160,000 people employed in Britain.

As the CEO of the Advanced Propulsion Centre – an organisation that exists to facilitate and encourage the research & development of low-carbon propulsion technology in the UK and anchor subsequent manufacturing – I can verify that we are in exciting times. We are in a time of unprecedented change, with the low carbon/zero emission and the Connected and Autonomous Vehicle challenges being at the very forefront of the massive changes that are driving the auto sector worldwide.

We already have cars that can tell us where the traffic jams are and suggest evading action, cars that can be put themselves into, or be summoned from a tight parking space via a smart device, and cars that can drive themselves. But what about a flying car?

Until quite recently, flying cars have always been a flight of fancy for the automotive industry; no one has dared put a time-scale on the development. But in the last couple of months or so we have seen an explosion of discussion and press coverage on flying vehicles, as more and more people weigh into the debate. So, could we actually be zipping around urban areas in flying vehicles in the future?

Recently, Munich-based Lilium Aviation announced an all-important milestone, with the first test flight of its all-electric, two-seater, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) prototype vehicle.

Around the same time, Uber announced that it would start testing its future On-demand Urban Air Transportation by 2020 – claiming that on-demand aviation has the potential to radically improve urban mobility, giving people back time lost in their daily commutes, and using its ridesharing model to amortise the initial high-costs of this type of vehicle.

But there is more involved. There are the societal issues, from privacy to the fact that most people think the idea of a large and heavy vehicle flying around urban areas with fast-moving blades is a dangerous and bad one.

Brad Templeton, an entrepreneur who was recently working on Google’s self-driving project, recently summed this up perfectly. He said: “I love the idea of being able to go out into my back yard and hop in my flying car, but I hate the idea of my neighbour having one.”

Then there is the whole issue of safety. The motor vehicle has been on the road for well over a century, and even though cars today are crammed full of the most advanced driver assistance systems yet – with autopilot features and autonomous breaking to avoid a crash – they do still crash into each other and quite a lot. According to Department for Transport there were more than 186,000 incidents on UK roads alone in 2016.

Can you imagine cars flying around the skies of a congested city at rush hour without the constraints of a road network – it would be pandemonium. What if they breakdown? Or run out of power? It would bring a whole new meaning to ‘range anxiety’.

So, will there ever be flying cars? Well, in some form, yes of course there will be. But I think it is all about getting the definition right first.

The notion of a car that looks like a car, which at the flick of a switch instantly takes off and flies (as in Hollywood or TV) I would say that’s not something I’m planning for just now – unless your first name is Harry, your surname Potter and you own a blue Ford Anglia, then may be. Cars and planes are two very distinct technologies; although it is possible to combine them, you create something that doesn’t work well as either. But future on-demand urban air transport services are, in my opinion, a potential yes.

However, for the flying car to progress it must still overcome the same issues that the automotive and aerospace industries are trying to overcome today, and we first need to solve these before we can even consider flying cars.

Battery technology, advanced lightweight technology, autonomous technology (with sensors that work well in all weather conditions) and improvements to electric motor technology are strategic technologies that we at the Advanced Propulsion Centre are helping to facilitate investment for the development of here in the UK. Britain has always been at the forefront of innovation. From the Industrial Revolution to the computer, Britain has been a world leader in innovation for a sizeable portion of modern history. Developing everything from the cutting edge to the totally outrageous. We are a nation of inventors and if the flying car is really going to be the next generation of personal transport then the UK is most definitely the place to start the search.

We would like to thank Ian Constance for writing a guest blog for the Institute. Please note that a guest blog provides an external independent perspective, and does not necessarily represent the views of the ATI.

[Image: © Lilium Aviation]