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Will it be possible to ride flying cars in Japan by 2025? Safety, eliminating anxiety key

SkyDrive Inc.'s flying car SD-03 is seen undergoing multiple flight tests. (Photo Courtesy of SkyDrive Inc.)

TOKYO -- The flying car, once the stuff of science fiction movies, is becoming more and more of a reality. The Japanese government has set a goal of realizing a flight with passengers on board by 2025, and venture companies are leading the development of the vehicles. Major automakers are also eyeing the huge related market.

    Tomohiro Fukuzawa, CEO of SkyDrive Inc., talks about flying cars in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on June 9, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuhi Sugiyama)

    This photo shows an aircraft developed by Joby Aviation, a U.S. company in which Toyota Motor Corp. has invested. (Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Corp.)

    Imagine it's a day in 2030, a car departs from a seaside apartment building and drives for a while on tires on the ground to an open space facing the sea. When the driver instructs the car to take them to their office in Tokyo, the downward-facing propellers attached to the four corners of the car rotate at high speed, and the car floats up into the sky and joins the "road" where countless other cars are flying around. It takes less than 30 minutes to reach the center of Tokyo, about 50 kilometers away.

    This is an image video that combines live action and CG, and is available on the website of SkyDrive Inc., a venture company based in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, that develops flying cars.

    The company, established in 2018, succeeded in Japan's first indoor manned flight test in 2019, and unveiled its small, one-seater model, SD-03 (4 meters long and 2 meters high), in 2020. The SD-03 can fly for about 10 minutes at a speed of 50 kilometers per hour with a total of eight propellers installed in its four corners.

    Tomohiro Fukuzawa, CEO of SkyDrive, talks about the path to practical use, saying, "We will start with flights to and from specific points and gradually expand the range of flight.

    The Osaka Kansai Expo in 2025 is targeted as an intermediate goal for the spread of the technology. The Japanese government has a plan to use flying cars as a means of transportation between Kansai International Airport and the Expo site, which is nearly 30 kilometers away, and domestic and foreign manufacturers, including SkyDrive, are working on the development of such vehicles.

    Fukuzawa said, "Eventually, we would like to be able to call up a vehicle with a smartphone application and have it travel in the sky automatically."

    So, what exactly is a flying car? The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has jurisdiction over such vehicles because they are a means of transportation. Although there is no clear definition of what a flying car is, it is being designed as an aircraft with features such as electric power, automatic operation, and vertical take-off and landing. It is sometimes referred to as a "human-riding drone."

    Because it is driven by a motor, it makes less noise than a small aircraft powered by engines. Since it takes off and lands vertically, it does not need a runway, and small-sized vehicles may only require the space of a few cars.

    Morgan Stanley, a major U.S. financial services firm, estimates that the size of the market related to flying cars will be 1 trillion dollars (about 110 trillion yen) worldwide by 2040. In addition to the manufacture and sale of products, related businesses cover a wide range of areas, including the maintenance of takeoff and landing sites, providing flight services, and damage insurance.

    Anticipating a huge business opportunity, Toyota Motor Corp. announced in January 2020 that it had invested about 43 billion yen (roughly $390 million) in the U.S. company Joby Aviation. Toyota's President Akio Toyoda drew attention when he issued a statement saying, "The practical realization of air mobility has been a dream of ours since our founding." Joby Aviation acquired the development division of flying taxis from Uber Technologies Inc. and plans to launch a "flying mobility service" in the U.S. in 2024.

    Toyota has also been providing technical support to SkyDrive. Fukuzawa is an engineer from Toyota, and the research base used for test flights is in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, where the automaker's headquarters is located. Fukuzawa says, "There are many engineers from Toyota in SkyDrive."

    However, there are many issues that need to be resolved before the practical use of this technology can be implemented. The first priority is to ensure the safety of the flying car to prevent it from crashing. Maintaining the balance of the vehicle by moving multiple propellers at the same time requires advanced control technology, and if the software is inadequate, there are crash risks. There is also the possibility that the battery, which is the power source, may catch fire, and if the power supply is shut down, the propellers will stop rotating.

    The vehicle is expected to fly at an altitude of several hundred meters, and if the propeller stops there, it will have less time to recover than an aircraft flying at a higher altitude. There is also the question of whether or not society will accept an aircraft the size of a car flying overhead.

    Professor Gaku Minorikawa of Hosei University, who is well versed in the development of flying cars, said, "We should create the groundwork for the spread of flying cars. In addition to designating cities where flying is possible in special zones, we can consider commercializing aircraft that look similar to familiar helicopters first.

    (Japanese original by Yuhi Sugiyama, Tokyo Business News Department)

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