This time a year ago, flying cars sat firmly in the “fun to think about, ain’t gonna happen” category. But in recent months, company after company has emerged with totally-not-kidding plans to deliver vehicles worthy of George Jetson. And so, the idea of flying where you now drive finagled its way into the “umm, so this could really be real” column.
So far, this wannabe industry has attracted mostly brash startups, with Uber cheering them on, ready to help deploy whatever tech they can make fly. But one member of the bandwagon offers the gravitas that comes with nearly 50 years of building real life airplanes. Airbus is in the flying car game, and it’s ready to embrace a new way to take off.
“It seems like the future has gotten here faster than we all expected,” says Zach Lovering, the head of Vahana, Airbus’ personal, autonomous, electric, lust-worthy, flying machine. “There clearly is a convergence of technology that has happened to make this a reality for all of us.” He’s talking about the lightweight materials, cheaper and better batteries, and improved avionics software that make aviation experts think electric planes that take off and land vertically could be commercially viable in just five years.
Vahana started in that most clichéd of ways—as a sketch on the back of a napkin. The team wanted a vehicle that looked desirable, that people would want to use in their daily lives. “This form language is what we needed to get nailed down early on, so that we all had a direction we could go forward with,” says Lovering.
With eight rotors and wings that tilt up or forward for vertical or horizontal flight, Vahana looks nothing like Airbus’ commercial airliners, helicopters, and military aircraft. That’s in part because it sprouts from A^3 (pronounced A cubed), the European manufacturing giant’s Silicon Valley outpost. But it’s also because the aircraft—which so far exists only on paper and computer screens—is meant to be a new way forward (and up) for Airbus.
In modern aviation, function trumps form. A helicopter design, for example, starts with the smallest components, like the cross-sectional shape of the rotor blades, and everything follows from there. Making things fly is hard enough, after all, without trying to look cool while doing it.
As aerodynamicists and engineers, of course, they only took so much inspiration from comic books and movies. “Those vehicles rely on technology like anti-gravity,” says Lovering. Vahana may exist only on paper and computer screens, but it is “built” around existing tech, like wings, control surfaces, and landing gear. Airbus hasn’t revealed any specs like range, speed, or battery size.
“My mom’s an artist,” Lovering says. “She inspired me to remember that you can add beauty to your designs without sacrificing any of the technicals.” That might not be 100 percent true, but so far, his team has managed to keep the basic shape of the first sketch as it develops more technical plans, an accomplishment in itself.
There’s plenty left to nail down, design-wise. The team wants to make the interior as accessible as possible, if it can find away around the landing gear, which needs to be a certain height for safe touch-down. For new passengers, Levering is considering displays to provide insight into the “mind” of the autonomous controls, reassuring the person on board that it does see that other hovering craft over to the left.
Now that he and his teammates have a design direction they’re happy with, the hard engineering work starts. They’re planning a demonstration flight of a full-scale prototype by the end of the year. The future appears to really be on its way.