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David Zax

A View from David Zax

The EU's Flying Car Project

Tired of waiting in traffic? The EU thinks the solution might be “personal aerial vehicles.”

  • July 26, 2011

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

That, at least, is the conclusion one reaches after examining the EU’s recent interest in building “Personal Aerial Vehicles”–flying cars. The “myCopter project,” as it is called, recently snagged $6.2 million in EU funding, says Inhabitat.

Among the many good reasons for launching cars into the skies–sheer exhilaration is the first that comes to mind–the EU justifies the research money with one in particular: traffic jams. “Considering the prevailing congestion problems with ground-based transportation and the anticipated growth of traffic in the coming decades, a major challenge is to find solutions that combine the best of ground-based and air-based transportation,” write the project runners in an abstract. Tired of playing bumper cars through rush hour? Just flip the switch into flight mode.

An interesting mix of technological and regulatory challenges stand between us and a future filled with flying cars; the researchers describe their project as a “unique integration of social investigations and technological advancements that are necessary to move public transportation into the third dimension.” To solve the technical problems, an all-star consortium of European research universities is on the case, including Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, the University of Liverpool, the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie, and others. The researchers behind the project even think flying cars might be environmentally beneficial–since we’ll be traveling directly from point to point, instead of zigzagging, and we’ll no longer be wasting energy stopping and accelerating at all those stoplights.

And as for safety? Driving on the ground, after all, is dangerous enough. Here’s where regulation and technology meet. The flying cars would be highly automated, say the researchers, employing new technology for “obstacle avoidance, path planning and formation flying.” It’s easy to see how some of the technology for driverless cars would factor in here. “[I]t could be highly likely that no-flight zones that [personal aerial vehicles] simply could not fly in will be designed, because the automation that is onboard will not allow the vehicle to be directed towards these zones,” Heinrich Bülthoff of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, one of the scientific leaders of the project, told Inhabitat.

The EU isn’t the only one interested in flying cars. Last year, a Massachusetts-based company called Terrafugia Transport made headlines by crossing a Federal Aviation Administration regulatory hurdle. Last month the company announced a delay, saying we could nonetheless still expect to see it hit the market by 2012. Years back, GizmoWatch put together a fun round-up of its top ten flying cars (some of which never made it out of blueprint stage). This is a very old dream indeed; the EPFL press release announcing the myCopter project (en français) dug up an illustrated Popular Mechanics cover from 1951, featuring a man rolling a small helicopter out of his one-car garage.

Even working out all the technological and regulatory kinks, it still all seems a little ludicrously dangerous, doesn’t it? But there’s one reason, of course, that flying cars might be safer than they initially seem. In many car accidents, after all, the victims are pedestrians–and until we finally realize the dream of the personal jetpack, there’s no such thing as pedestrians in the sky.

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