In a move to get airborne vehicles off the ground in Japan, the government last August established the Public-Private Conference for Future Air Mobility. The group is made up of two government agencies, several universities, and 22 private companies and institutes, including NEC Corp, Japan Airlines, Subaru, Uber Japan, and Boeing Japan.
Then, on 20 December, the partners published a roadmap that outlines the technological development and establishment of regulations required to make flying vehicles a reality. The roadmap lays out an ambitious timeline with test flights targeted to start this year, and commercialization to begin in 2023.
"I've heard this is the first time in the world where public and private sectors have got together to formulate and announce a roadmap regarding flying cars," says Kenji Mikami, who directs Japan’s Manufacturing Industries Technology Strategy Office at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).
Mikami, together with Keita Arakaki, a division head in Japan’s Civil Aviation Bureau, within the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism, briefed the foreign press in Tokyo at the end of January about the government's efforts to kickstart the new industry.
Helping spur on these efforts are a number of international projects also aimed at launching flying vehicles in the next several years. These include the ride-share service that Uber and NASA are cooperating on, Airbus's Vahana self-piloted project, and the Chinese drone maker Ehang's autonomous aerial vehicle, which is now undergoing test flights. Singapore and Dubai also have government-led projects underway. Consequently, Japan must move quickly in order to not be left trailing in competitors' jet streams.
Mikami points out that several technologies have matured sufficiently to make electric flying vehicles a realistic proposition. In particular, he notes that electric motors are now smaller and more powerful, batteries are more efficient and provide longer run times, electric cars are already in use, and self-driving vehicles are fast approaching.
As for the test flights marked to begin this year, the Ministry of Land and Transport's Arakaki said no business operators have yet been chosen to complete them. However, after listening to discussions by Conference members, he envisions testing will take place in a series of stages. First, an unmanned and unloaded vehicle would be tested for flight range and landing. The next stage would see it carry loads, after which it might transport test dummies that weighed the same as humans. Then, presumably, trials carrying humans would follow.
Arakaki also noted that most operators aim to have these vehicles take off and land vertically (VTOL), "like a helicopter."
While the goal is to eventually introduce fully autonomous flying vehicles, this won't yet be possible when business operations are expected to start in 2023. "Initially," said Arakaki, "...flying vehicles might need support on the ground, not only for safety and security reasons, but because people are not familiar with flying car services."
Rather, the first airborne vehicles will have pilots on board, and will start by transporting goods rather than people. To prepare for this, the ministry is considering the necessary standards and regulations needed to license such pilots.
Both government officials also expect the first commercial services to begin in rural and mountainous areas rather than in urban and densely populated centers.
METI's Mikami divulged that no specific government budget has so far been allocated for the project. However, there are investment funds available for advancing such technologies as lightweight materials, next-generation batteries, drones, and electric aircraft. "So these budgets can be used to promote flying vehicles as well," he pointed out.
Two companies and members of the Conference have already begun limited testing of prototype flying vehicles—Cartivator and SkyDrive. Cartivator is made up of volunteer engineers based in Toyota City, in central Japan, and is sponsored by Toyota Motors, as well as by other Japanese companies including NEC and Panasonic. SkyDrive is a startup based in Tokyo. It is equity-funded, and the company is working with Cartivator on common goals.
SkyDrive's goal is to develop a compact flying car capable of vertical takeoff and landing to carry two people over relatively short distances. "It will be as large as a general-sized car, and because it will taxi as well, it will be able to take off and land almost anywhere," says Tomohiro Fukuzawa, the company president and a representative director of Cartivator.
The current prototype uses eight battery-driven rotors, which SkyDrive aims to reduce to four. Fukuzawa says two types of batteries are under consideration, a plug socket battery that would be charged in-vehicle like electric cars, and a replacement-type battery that could be easily removed from the vehicle and replaced with a fresh battery.
SkyDrive's business plan is to provide taxi-like services that would be faster and more convenient than ground vehicles. Fares will depend on the kind of services offered. Fukuzawa notes that helicopter taxi services typically charge between 50,000 to 100,000 yen (US $450 to $900). "We should be much cheaper than that," he says.
At this stage of development, it’s not clear just how practical the first commercial flying cars will turn out to be. But what is apparent, is that the competition racing to make them happen is already fierce.