Of the myriad of futuristic technologies science fiction institutions like Star Wars have popularized for the mainstream public, few have felt so close to our grasp than the hovercar.
Like any vehicle, the goal of a hovercar is to get you from point A to point B. It just happens to do so while levitating off the ground—just a few feet, sure, but still without the need for spinning wheels and traction. It never seemed like it was too fanciful a dream; since the middle of the last century, our favorite sci-fi movies and futuristic thinkers promised us flying cars in just a few decades, and certainly if that vision was still some ways away, at least we would get hovercars, right?
Now it’s 2018, and there isn't a damn hovercar in sight. What happened?
Turns out, flying cars might actually be easier to produce than hovercars. A flying car ostensibly works much like a helicopter or an airplane, but is smaller and at lower altitudes. You can use the advent of the drone as an example—many types of drones these days work as multirotor systems, capable of vertical takeoff and landing, to do everything from take pictures and videos from high up to delivering packages, to watering or dusting agricultural grounds.
These days, several companies are working to develop flying cars through the same sort of rotorcraft design—they’d just be big enough to fit one or a few passengers. One group that’s getting a lot of attention for their work on this is Cartivator, a Japanese startup that recently received a whopping $370,000 investment from Toyota. Their flying car, SkyDrive, is a quadrotor craft capable of both driving on the road and flying in the air.
“Ours is the world’s smallest flying car,” Cartivator’s business director Ryutaro Mori told The Daily Beast. “The small size enable people to take off and land anywhere.” SkyDrive is designed for two passengers.
“The rotors remains folded when driving, but they unfold when transforming into flight mode,” Mori said.
He’s unable to say much more about how much this thing might cost once it’s ready to be sold and driven and flown in real life, but Mori thinks it’s reasonable to expect the SkyDrive will be more expensive than the average car.
In the meantime, however, Cartivator and Toyota are striving to have a prototype ready for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, eager to have one of the cars play a pivotal role in the lighting of the torch.
SkyDrive is just one of many projects around the world seeking to turn to flying car into a reality. Each one employs a different design angled toward a different sort of vehicular experience. But what they all have in common is they’re looking to fly, not hover.
Why is the hovercar destined to be an unrealized dream? It’s not simply that a flying car capable of going tens or hundreds of feet in the air has so many more advantages to it. It’s also that hovering—i.e. levitating—is much bigger engineering struggle. It’s easier to make something launch up in the air than it is to keep it levitating a few feet off the ground safely and moving in a stable motion forward.
Unless we discover the secret to antigravity, the closest thing we’ll ever have to levitation is through magnets. And we’ve already employed magnetic levitation (maglev) in some of our transportation models. The Shanghai Maglev Train, operating since 2004, blows through its 18.6 mile line at a blistering 267 miles per hour, all while levitating about 1 centimeter off the ground thanks to electromagnetic suspension. Japan managed to build and test out a prototype train that screeched up to 310 miles per hour.
This little factoid forms a big argument for why we shouldn’t give up on the maglev car dream: An entire populace using such vehicles could speed through their commutes at incredible speeds, assuming we could keep maintain a tolerable threshold of safety. And maglev is a comparably low-energy technology to utilize to boot.
So how could we make this happen? A Chinese student pitched an idea of this to Volkswagen several years ago, as part of a competition to imagine the car of the future.
Imagine the entire tarmac of a street was magnetized—either thanks to a layer of magnetic mineral or ore sitting beneath the pavement, or magnetic rock was mixed into the tarmac itself. If we could find a way to harness electromagnetic suspension off the rails and in a more freeform system, we might finally have hovercars.
Volkswagen took this concept and created a digital demo of what this might look like, showing off a levitating car perusing through city streets. The company’s car actually hovers several feet off the ground too — unrealistic for today’s maglev standards, but maybe possible for the engineers of the future.
Of course, a hovercar moving through city streets is also unrealistic. Public transportation is the future of urban spaces, not the personal vehicle. And if the main argument for a hovercar is so that it can move fast, trying to drive one around in city traffic would simply nullify that advantage, not to mention incredible taxpayer cost of repaving every road with magnetized tarmac.
But who knows—the electric car was dead once, and managed to come back stronger than ever. Maybe the idea of a real life hovercar can do the same?