Despatch from Tokyo | International

With flying cars, it’s back to the future in Tokyo

Tsubasa Nakamura, project leader of Cartivator, third from left, watching the flight of the test model of the flying car in Toyota, central Japan, in June 2017.

Tsubasa Nakamura, project leader of Cartivator, third from left, watching the flight of the test model of the flying car in Toyota, central Japan, in June 2017.   | Photo Credit: Koji Ueda

For those who grew up on 20th-century science fiction, it may soon be ‘Back to the Future’. Flying cars are set to soar out of the realm of fantasy and into the Tokyo skyline within the next few years.

Last August, Japan established the world’s most comprehensive public-private partnership to investigate and develop the flying car. The group brings together government Ministries with international heavyweights like Boeing, Airbus and Uber, as well as domestic players like delivery firm Yamato Holdings, carmaker Subaru and e-commerce company Rakuten. The group has since produced a roadmap that envisages test flights to begin in 2019, leading up to commercialisation of flying cars by as early as 2023.

The speed with which the project is moving forward is surprising for a conservative country, whose last world-changing innovation was the Walkman. But the long gap since the Walkman is in part what is driving Japan’s determination to succeed with flying cars. China and the U.S. dominate the biggest shifts in the global transportation and mobility industries: electric cars and drones. The flying car remains up for grabs.

Kenji Mikami, director for digital strategy manufacturing industries at Japan’s Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry, stressed Tokyo’s determination to be in the pilot’s seat. Speaking at a briefing, he said, “The government is determined that the flying car not remain a pie in the sky. We will make all-out efforts to achieve our targets.”

The road map lays out a step-by-step progression from test flights and feasibility studies in 2019, to the use of flying cars for goods by the mid 2020s. Air transportation of people will first take place in rural and mountainous areas, before being introduced to cities in the 2030s.

Opening up the sky

Mr. Mikami referred to a study by Uber that envisages the company rolling out 1,000 flying cars across 50 cities worldwide by 2030. These would cruise at speeds of about 250 km per hour, at an altitude of 1,000 to 2,000 feet, and could travel about 100 km on a single charge. The ultimate goal is to have electric-powered, autonomous, vertical take-off and landing vehicles that would cost passengers no more than a taxi. With congested roads being a major gripe in most parts of the world, opening up of the sky, a vast and underutilised transportational resource, makes intuitive sense. Further, the technology to make these machines — miniature and powerful motors, long-lasting batteries, lightweight materials — is available. The jump from self-driving cars to flying ones is not a big one technologically.

A greater challenge is what Mr. Mikami called “social acceptability”. Concerns over safety, noise and the environment must be met. Moreover, a whole new set of air traffic control rules will have to be formulated to deal with “roads in the sky.” All of which raises the question of whether risk-averse Japan is the country best suited to take the lead. “Yes, we are conservative and people might be hesitant in accepting,” admitted Mr. Mikami. “But, if it can be accepted in Japan, it is like a stamp of viability that all the world will recognise.”

Whether the scenario outlined in Japan’s road map becomes a reality is as much up in the air as a flying car. A more immediate goal is the one declared by the Toyota-invested, flying car start-up, Cartivator: to use a flying car to light the Olympic torch next year. In response to a question by this writer on whether this is likely to happen, Mr. Mikami smiled and said, “We are open to all proposals.”

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Printable version | May 25, 2020 2:44:22 AM |

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