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Flying Cars: The Future or Fantasy?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

While some companies are focusing on autonomous cars, other innovators are embracing an even more futuristic vision and are working on developing vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) air vehicles, or flying cars. Companies like Uber, also a self-driving vehicle pioneer; Airbus; startups and more are racing to be the first to get through the myriad of design and regulatory hurdles to take the pain out of big-city commuting.

The term “flying car” is a misnomer; these commercial personal aircrafts, depending on the developer, are more analogous to battery operated helicopters or drones with passenger pods, but the mission is the same: Combat gridlock to reduce the time and frustration of commuting. And, according to Senior Managing Director Doug Opalka in HFF's Austin office, they have advantages over driverless cars.

"Once the technology is commercially affordable and accessible, it will be much easier to implement flying cars than autonomous driving cars," Opalka said. "The driving technology is available today and much cheaper, but comes with a host of complicating factors primarily centered around the interaction of driverless cars with human-driven cars. The computers are much safer drivers, but there are endless liability questions and concerns over the inevitable circumstances when accidents do happen and particularly when those accidents cause harm. These challenges will likely keep widespread implementation of the driverless car technology further out on the horizon than the actual advancement of the technology."

What Does this Mean for Commercial Real Estate?

It would be prudent for land owners and commercial real estate developers to pay attention to the advances in this market. Flying car developers will have specific needs, including development sites on which to construct ports for takeoffs and landing in addition to industrial manufacturing space. "Ride-sharing" companies like Uber will also need hanger-type space, depending on finished product size, available for storage and repair of vehicles. 

And, once this technology is widely adopted, it will have far-reaching effects when it comes to things as basic as parking garages. CoStar reports that the U.S. alone has an excess of 800 million parking spaces, and if people move away from commuting in their private cars to "ride-sharing" flying cars, the need for these parking spaces diminishes and, in prime areas in cities, it leads to redevelopment of some of the existing structures to accommodate more offices, hotels, multi-housing and retail space. Additionally, existing structures will need to think about how flying cars are going to land and take off, whether that means rethinking roofs or other designated takeoff and landing pads.

Flying cars would have an effect on suburban areas since one of the biggest drawbacks of living in a suburb or an exurb is the frustration and burden of losing time to commuting. With a commute time that would be reduced by the speed of a flying car coupled with the efficiency, it would allow for the newly "found" time to be spent on other things, including recreational activities. And no matter if one resides or works in a city or a suburb, how far something is within a MSA would be less of an issue, opening up areas that were once too much of a hassle to visit, whether it be an entertainment option or an employer. 

"The net result of flying cars is that that there will be far less stress and cost on our road infrastructure, far less need for major road and mass transit expansion, and, therefore, a technological magic bullet for traffic problems and congestion in major cities." Opalka said. "The cool thing in my opinion, is that all of this will play out in our lifetime, and there is no doubt the effects on commercial real estate will be profound. It will impact where people live (multi-housing), where and how people shop (retail), how goods are stored and transported (industrial) and what the workplace looks like in the long term (office).

Who Is Developing Flying Cars?

AeroMobil

Slovakia-based AeroMobil is currently taking preorders for its AeroMobile Flying Car, which is expected to be available for delivery by 2020. At $1.28 to $1.6 million, AeroMobile expects to deliver 500 units that can transform from drive mode to flight mode in less than three minutes. Additionally, the wings fold back when operating on land and extend for flight. The finished model is expected to have a range of 430 miles and a top air speed of 124 miles per hour.

Airbus’s Pop.Up System

Airbus and partner Italdesign debuted their Pop.Up system concept earlier this year at the 87th Geneva International Motor Show. Pop.Up is “the first modular, fully electric, zero emission concept vehicle system designed to relieve traffic congestion in crowded megacities,” according to Airbus. The VTOL uses a modular system comprising a ground module, passenger capsule and air module so that it can travel on the ground and in the air. The Pop.Up system uses an artificial intelligence platform that is in control of the technical aspects of operating the VTOL and an interface module that communicates with passengers virtually. It is meant to be used as a ride sharing and will determine based on traffic, timing and demands the best route to take, whether that be by air, ground or a combination of the two. Given that this is, at this point, a concept, it’s unknown if it, in this or any other form, will become a reality given Airbus has yet to announce a time frame for the project.

Larry Page’s Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk

One of two flying-car startups backed by Google co-founder and current Alphabet CEO Larry Page is Zee.Aero (Zee), which is headquartered in Hollister, California. The super-secret project has more than 150 aerospace engineers and employees working on it, according to The Wall Street Journal. A patent filed in 2013 is for a “’personal aircrafts’ that generally include thin fuselages sandwiched between wings on the front and back and topped with eight rotors.”

Kitty Hawk is the second Page-backed startup. The Kitty Hawk Flyer is an ultralight aircraft meant to be only flown in “uncongested areas for recreational purposes” and is specifically designed to be flown over fresh water. Kitty Hawk reports on its website that the product will be available “by the end of the year.” Though the Kitty Hawk Flyer isn’t intended for commuting, it is one hundred percent electric and demonstrates progress in the area of vertical takeoffs and landing and in manufacturing, given its projected delivery date.

PAL-V International B.V.’s PAL-V Liberty Pioneer and Sport

Dutch company PAL-V International B.V. debuted its Pal-V Liberty, a three-wheel, two-seat flying car that is more like a gyrocopter that can drive. It lifts into the air via a wind-powered rotor, and, when in drive mode, the rotor blades fold down on top of the roof. With its 100 horse power engine, the PAL-V can go from zero to 62 miles per hour in less than nine seconds, has a max speed of approximately 100 miles per hour and uses unleaded fuel purchasable at a local gas station. In flight mode, it has a max speed of 112 miles per hour, with a max range of between 248 miles and 310 miles depending on operation (equating to approximately 4.3 hours of flight time) with about a half hour of reserve fuel left for safety. The company plans on selling 90 of the PAL-V Liberty Pioneer Edition (for about $599,000) before beginning delivery of their Liberty Sport edition, which costs $399,000. Delivery is expected next year.

Uber

Uber announced in late April that they are working on making a commercial VTOL a reality by 2020 in two cities: Dallas and Dubai. Bloomberg reports that city officials have signed off on working with Uber to test a VTOL concept, and Uber is partnering with several companies, including Aurora Flight Sciences, Pipistrel Aircraft, Embraer SA, Mooney International Corp. and Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. Uber Elevate plans launching flying taxis in 2023 to 2025 for markets beyond Dallas and Dubai and, according to CNN, expects the cost to be similar to the cost of an UberX. To read Uber’s White Paper on their ideas for urban air transportation, click here.

Several other companies are developing VTOLs, including Moller International, Lilium and Terrafugia. Rumors are swirling that Apple is getting involved as well.  

Rules, Regulations and Public Safety

Before people start dreaming about a commute that takes minutes versus hours per week, there are a lot of hurdles that these companies will have to jump over before this technology can be widely adopted. In addition to the high cost of ownership, noise concerns and development issues, rules and regulations have to be developed and public safety concerns have to be overcome.

Reuters reports that various governments have begun looking into the best way to handle regulations surrounding these types of vehicles. Along with officials, the auto and aviation industries are developing software and working with city planners on how to integrate VTOLs and flying cars with traditional vehicles and, until then, where they will be able to operate. For the United States, The New York Times reports that, "two years ago, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began development of an air traffic control system meant for managing all sorts of flying vehicles, including drones.”

Additionally, flying car operators will be required to hold both a pilot’s and a traditional drivers’ license, bringing the Departments of Transportation and state-level DMVs into the mix.

By Kimberly Steele, Digital Content/Public Relations Specialist





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