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Japan aims high to have flying cars hit the skies in the 2020s

This image shows "SkyDrive," a flying car being developed by cross-industrial group Cartivator. (Photo courtesy of Cartivator)

TOKYO -- The government is set to draw up a road map for commercializing flying cars by the 2020s in a public-private council later this year, with the aim of engaging in full-throttle discussions on technological development and safety measures for next-generation vehicles.

Competition to develop flying cars, including flying taxis, has been accelerating overseas, amid speculation that the current global shift toward electric vehicles and driving automation may head into the skies in the future.

As of now, there is no clear definition of flying cars, with such vehicles hovering somewhere between helicopters and drones. It is envisaged that flying cars will take off and land vertically with their propellers rotated by battery-powered motors. Blueprints for a variety of flying vehicles are available, with their speeds ranging from 100 kilometers to several hundred kilometers per hour and most employing auto-piloting techniques. Compared to conventional engine-driven helicopters, flying vehicles are designed simply, with fewer components, and require no pilot, thus making the operational cost as cheap as that of taxis, and enable riders to take short cuts from one point to another without large-scale infrastructure such as expressways in place.

U.S ride-hailing giant Uber Technologies Inc. aims to commercialize services with flying cars in the 2020s. The firm envisages a vehicle with a capacity of five including the pilot, which could reach speeds of up to 320 kilometers. The company plans to conduct a test flight of such vehicles in 2020 for the possible start of services in 2023. By 2030, unmanned automatic flights may become a reality with over 1,000 vehicles ferrying several hundreds of thousands of passengers a day, according to the company's scenario.

This image shows "SkyDrive SD-01," a life-size prototype flying car being developed by Cartivator. (Photo courtesy of Cartivator)

Europe's Airbus SE and Chinese startup EHang Inc. are also scrambling to develop flying cars. Companies from the United States and Europe have put prototype flying vehicles on display at the CES fair in the U.S. and at the Geneva International Motor Show in Switzerland. In Singapore and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, public-private efforts are underway to verify the impact of flying vehicles as part of efforts to improve traffic environments in their respective countries.

In Japan, a group called Cartivator is rushing to develop flying cars with a goal of achieving a demonstration flight at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Cartivator is formed by about 100 volunteers, including young engineers in the automotive and aviation industries as well as students.

Amid growing attention here and abroad, the Japanese government is aspiring to make flying cars a key industry in the next generation. "There is domestic demand for flying vehicles, such as in alleviating traffic jams, disaster relief operations, mobility between remote islands and mountainous areas, as well as tourism," said a senior official with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. "We can make the most of Japan's edge in the high-volume production of high-performance batteries and motors."

In May, a delegation of public and private sectors including representatives from over 10 Japanese companies such as automakers, distributors and airlines visited the United States to attend a meeting organized by Uber for developers. The delegation offered to host such a conference in Japan, and Uber is planning to hold one such gathering in Tokyo in late August -- the first of its kind outside of the U.S.

Developers face a myriad of challenges before putting flying cars in motion. In addition to technical hurdles such as the need to enhance battery and motor performance to several times the current level, the development of take-off and landing sites and communications infrastructure is also a prerequisite. Additionally, development of safety standards and operational control systems is a must, as is understanding from users. The public-private council to be launched by the Japanese government will call into question the issue of just how far the ministries and agencies concerned and the private sector can go in joining forces for flying cars to see the light of day.

(Japanese original by Kenji Wada, Business News Department)

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