Ready or not, here comes a newdesign: the Aska, a dual-purpose vehicle designed both to drive on roads and to fly through the air so you can loft yourself over the gridlock.
After working on the design for two years, startup NFT will unveil a model of the Aska at an Israeli conference on Monday. We’re revealing the design exclusively here, along with the company’s plan to test-fly it in the first quarter of 2020 and to start selling it in 2025.
The newly named Aska — Japanese for flying bird — will be the size of a large SUV when on the road and will fit three passengers, said Chief Executive Maki Kaplinsky. Passengers will drive to a nearby open area the size of a few parking spaces, most likely a designated spot near a highway or in a big parking lot. There, the Aska will extend its wings, take off vertically and fly autonomously for a typical range up to 150 miles — no pilot required. Then it’ll descend to another open space and drive the last distance to its destination.
Building a flying car won’t be easy. It’s been nearly 80 years since automotive pioneer Henry Ford wrote in 1940, “Mark my word: A combination airplane and motor car is coming.” But drone flying and navigation technology, combined with increasing urban congestion, have begun changing people’s assumptions about what’s possible.
“After decades of failed projects and false starts, a new class of vehicle is finally emerging that could [transform] the way people and cargo are moved in cities,” consulting firm Deloitte said in a report Monday.
Sales will start slowly, with the US market for electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing (EVTOL) aircraft doubling from $3.4 billion in 2025 to $6.8 billion in 2035, Deloitte projected. But then dropping costs, greater social acceptance and battery technology progress should lead to a five-year surge to $17.7 billion in 2040.
Best of both worlds — or worst?
Hybrid designs like NFT’s that bridge two worlds can be dogged by compromises. But NFT believes the Aska’s aircraft-car combination will succeed through door-to-door convenience. If you have to take an Uber car to a launch pad, hail a flying taxi, then hail another Uber at the other end of the flight, you’ll spend so much time waiting for connections that you might as well have just driven a boring old car stuck on the ground.
“You’re solving the problem of traffic, the problem of wasting time,” said Maki Kaplinksy, who co-founded the company with her husband, NFT Chairman Guy Kaplinsky. “We have the most efficient and most comfortable way of commuting for the future.”
NFT, short for Next Future Transportation, expects the Aska to cost about $200,000 to start with, with prices dropping to a more attainable $50,000 range. But more likely, people will pay only to use them through a subscription service or through one-off trips, with pricing closer to the $200 to $300 people pay monthly for ordinary car expenses like payments, fuel, insurance and maintenance.
“We are not building something for rich people,” Guy Kaplinsky said. “We are building something that everyone will be able to afford.”
The Aska’s flying car design
The Aska is about 20 feet long in its road configuration, with wings folded across its back. When set up to fly, it’ll have a wingspan of about 40 feet.
It doesn’t need a runway. Ducted fans enclosed within the wings and piercing the body of the vehicle itself will propel the aircraft vertically. After takeoff, rear-facing fans will thrust it forward so the wings can generate lift and the Aska can fly longer distances more efficiently than a more drone-like design can.
Using wings — not just rotors — brings other advantages, Guy Kaplinsky said. They let the Aska glide down to a landing zone in a quiet spiral descent. That gliding ability also is useful for an emergency landing if there’s a severe mechanical problem.
Its electric motors are powered by batteries that can be recharged with a conventional fuel motor to extend the Aska’s range. The maximum flight range is 350 miles — but that’s with a single passenger.
NFT, headquartered in Mountain View, California, with engineering operations in Israel, is working on autonomous flying technology so all you’ll have to do is select a destination on the equivalent of Google Maps to get where you want to go. The company expects a partnership with an automotive technology company to supply self-driving technology for driving on the road.
Plenty of obstacles
There are countless barriers beyond just engineering to making the vision a reality: ensuring safety for passengers and anyone underneath the aircraft, obtaining government certifications, managing an increasingly crowded airspace, new noise, and convincing urban populations that they really do want flying cars.
Drones could help. E-commerce giant Amazon just unveiled its newest delivery drone and won Federal Aviation Administration approval to operate it as an airline. A competitor, Google spinoff Project Wing, also secured FAA approval this year.
We’re not yet at the stage where drones are dropping boxes in your backyards, but such efforts promise to advance technology for autonomous aircraft — and help regulators grapple with the best way to handle them safely.
And if NFT or other rivals succeed, flying cars could transform urban and suburban living. NFT believes the Aska will cut commuting time by up to a half, and with a range of 150 miles, people might be willing to live farther from city centers.
That presumes they’re willing to drive farther when flight isn’t possible, though. If Aska is as affordable as NFT hopes, it could bring a new form of aerial congestion. A glance up at the urban airspace could reveal hundreds of delivery drones and flying taxis instead just of a handful of jets.
Abundant flying car competition
NFT isn’t alone. There’s Kitty Hawk, funded by Google co-founder Larry Page and led by self-driving car pioneer Sebastian Thrun. There’s Ehang from China. There’s Terrafugia, which hopes to sell its flying car in 2019. There’s AeroMobil in Slovakia, which like NFT hopes for a hybrid flying-driving vehicle.
The aerospace giants Boeing and Airbus are interested too, for example with Airbus’ Vahana project and Audi partnership, and Boeing’s competing flying taxi making its first flight this year. Helicopter maker Bell has been showing off its Nexus concept, too.
A handful of flying cars that emerged at the CES tech show look like a cross between a drone and a small helicopter.
Then there’s Uber, which already operates Uber Copter now and hopes to launch its UberAir service in 2023.
But NFT thinks the time is right for the Aska, even if some rivals expect to be in the air sooner. The Kaplinskys anticipated new technology directions with their previous companies, the first in the defense industry and the second an internet of things toolmaker sold to GE Digital.
“This is our third startup,” Guy Kaplinsky said. “My goal is to predict the future.”
First published June 7, 5 a.m. PT.
Update June 8, 5:27 a.m. PT: Adds comment from 2018 Deloitte study.