Flying car, so close and so far

  China News Weekly reporter/Yang Zhijie

  Published in the 1021th issue of China News Weekly on November 22, 2021

  In 1940, Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motors in the United States, had a high-profile prophecy, "Remember my words: the combination of airplanes and cars will be available soon. You may smile when you hear it, but it will come." But Henry Ford was in his lifetime. It did not wait for the advent of the flying car era, and for a long time after that, the concept still remained in the world of science fiction and magic.

  However, recent developments related to many flying cars are sending a signal to the outside world: flying cars seem to be about to "fly" into reality.

In late October, Xiaopeng Motors announced the concept video of Xiaopeng Huitian's sixth-generation flying car, which can realize the integration of flight and land transportation.

The founder He Xiaopeng said that the goal of this flying car is to achieve mass production in 2024, and the sales price is controlled within 1 million yuan.

  Not only Xiaopeng Motors, flying cars are becoming a new outlet for many startups, car companies, and aviation giants around the world.

In this round of stories, urban traffic congestion is getting worse, and urban air traffic represented by flying cars is a new solution.

Many manufacturers set around 2025 as an important time node, and flying cars will be commercialized.

The German consulting company Roland Berger predicts that by 2050, there will be 98,000 flying cars flying in the sky in 95 major cities around the world.

  However, compared with the optimism of technology companies, some industry experts believe that the future of flying cars should be "cautiously optimistic."

Before large-scale promotion, the technology, regulations, and systems related to flying cars are the first issues that the industry must solve.

The two booms of flying cars

  Flying cars have become very popular recently, and Zhang Yangjun has a deep understanding.

In mid-September, he participated in the "3rd World New Energy Vehicle Conference" in Hainan. Flying cars were the most concerned topic besides chips.

The conference even set up a theme summit for flying cars to discuss solutions and development prospects.

  In this conference, Zhang Yangjun, the chairman of the summit, gave a speech on "Flying Vehicle Development and New Energy Power Technology Research". He is a professor at the School of Vehicles and Transportation of Tsinghua University and the executive deputy director of the State Key Laboratory of Automotive Safety and Energy. Since 2010 Pay attention to flying cars.

The Great Wall Aero Engine Innovation Center is my country’s first national-level collaborative innovation platform in the field of aero engine design. Recently, relying on the School of Vehicles and Transportation of Tsinghua University, the Aviation New Energy Power Sub-center was established to specialize in flying cars and aviation new energy power, Zhang Yangjun Served as the director of the branch center.

  The flying car concept has suddenly warmed up due to the recent wave of investment.

At the beginning of September, Shanghai Time Technology, which developed the manned eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft), announced that it would complete two rounds of financing within one month, totaling 10 million U.S. dollars, and it was less than 4 months before the company was established.

On September 18, Shanghai Fengfei Aviation Technology, another eVTOL product research and development manufacturer, completed a US$100 million Series A financing, which was the largest single financing obtained by a domestic eVTOL company at that time.

  This record was soon broken after a month.

On October 19, Xiaopeng Huitian, an ecological enterprise of Xiaopeng Automobile, announced that it has completed a series A financing of more than 500 million US dollars, with a pre-investment valuation of 1 billion US dollars.

In early November, Beijing Weihang Technology completed an angel round of financing of tens of millions of yuan. The company is committed to providing power propulsion technology support for urban flying vehicles for efficient travel in the air.

Not only domestically, since August, the American eVTOL manufacturer Joby Aviation, the German eVTOL manufacturer Lilium, and the American flying car company Archer have successively backdoor listings, and the market value has greatly increased, causing concern.

  This is not the first time that flying cars have been sought after.

Zhang Yangjun introduced to China News Weekly that in 2016, Uber Elevate, the air taxi division of Uber, issued a white paper, proposing the concept of "UAM, Urban Air Transportation", and that three-dimensional space can be used to ease The solution to urban traffic congestion is to develop flying cars such as air buses and air taxis.

  For a time, the UAM concept was detonated.

Zhang Yangjun noticed that at that time, about 40 companies in the world came up with flying car plans, and even some companies began to accept orders.

The most concern is that in 2017 China Geely Automobile acquired Terrafugia, an American flying car star company.

Terrafugia means "escape from the ground" in Latin. It was founded in 2006 and has launched two generations of flying car products. After being acquired, it was named "Tai Li Fei Che" in Chinese.

In addition, Daimler, Toyota, Hyundai, General Motors, Volkswagen, Aston Martin, Rolls Royce and many other car companies, as well as aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus have also begun to deploy flying cars.

Technology companies Intel and Tencent even participate in research and development or investment in flying cars.

  Venture capital is also targeting the eVTOL field.

According to statistics, in 2016, there were 15 related investments worldwide with a total amount of nearly 130 million U.S. dollars. By 2020, 13 investments have raised more than 1.1 billion U.S. dollars, mainly concentrated in Joby and Lilium.

  Supporters bet on the future, believing that flying cars can provide new solutions to difficult urban traffic congestion.

More importantly, the advancement of technology allows people to see the feasibility.

Over the past 100 years, generations of dreamers have tried to put "wings" on cars and fly safely in the air, all of which have failed.

Zhang Yangjun introduced that around 2017, new energy technology provided a new idea for flying cars. Electricity made vertical take-off and landing and distributed propulsion possible. Intelligence improved safety, lowered the threshold for operating flying cars, and became popular. Possibly, "the emergence of electrification and intelligent technology is a revolution in the design of aerospace vehicles."

  Four years later, the technology and application scenarios of flying cars gradually became clear.

Xie Jia, senior vice president of Shanghai Fengfei Aviation, introduced to China News Weekly that in the past two years, electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, whether batteries, motors, or electronic control, including distributed power generation, have matured and been widely used. application.

In addition, the eVTOL of many domestic and foreign manufacturers has been put into use in tourism, logistics and transportation, medical emergency, fire emergency and other scenes, leading to a relatively large outbreak in the industry this year.

  Zhang Yangjun noticed that there was a voice controversy about "whether flying cars are the future trend". This year, the industry has reached a consensus on this and turned to a discussion on "how to achieve technological and application breakthroughs."

In the new round of technological revolution and industrial transformation, the cross-border integration of technology and industry has become an important development trend. Flying cars are the intersection of the three major fields of automobiles, aviation, and new energy. They are also new materials, artificial intelligence, and new generation information. Important application scenarios of technology in the future.

No one wants to miss out on the opportunity to lay out the future industry of car companies and aircraft manufacturers. Moreover, the technology of developing flying cars can also be used in their respective industries for "dimension reduction". This is a "cost-effective" investment.

Battery safety is more important than battery life

  In the movie "Blade Runner 2049", a police car taking off freely shuttles through the urban space, which is a lot of people's imagination of flying cars in the future.

However, the current mainstream flying cars have no four wheels and no chassis. They are essentially self-driving aircrafts, not "cars" at all.

  Taking the Chinese eVTOL company Yihang Intelligent as an example, the manned eVTOL "Yihang 216" has the appearance of a two-seater cabin with 8 axes and 16 propellers below, like an enlarged version of a multi-rotor drone.

The manned eVTOL being developed by Joby Aviation, which provides air taxi services, looks like a small helicopter with 6 rotors on top. It can carry 4 passengers in addition to a pilot.

These are the two common shapes of flying cars at present.

  Therefore, they are collectively referred to as "flying cars", which is controversial in the industry.

Zhang Yangjun explained that it is called a "flying car" because eVTOL is oriented towards urban air traffic and has a large scale. It is not of the same magnitude as traditional aircraft, and will exist in the future on the order of a car.

However, the general aviation aircraft is small in scale and far away from people's lives, and it is difficult to attract attention and attention.

Secondly, eVTOL's industrial chain relies on automobiles. Flying cars must be produced on a large scale in the future and must be low-cost, and their production and supply chains must make full use of the automobile industry.

In addition, the current eVTOL is only a development stage of the flying car in the era of three-dimensional intelligent travel in the future, and it will also have ground driving functions in the future.

  eVTOL is the current mainstream technical solution for flying cars. The aircraft does not require a special runway and can take off and land like a helicopter.

Geely’s Taili Speed ​​TF-1 also uses the traditional taxi takeoff, which looks like a small airplane. After landing, it turns into a car by folding the wings, but its second-generation product is also changed to eVTOL.

"Flying cars are vehicles for urban air traffic and future travel, and taxiing is limited by urban space. It is definitely not the future way of flying cars." Zhang Yangjun said.

  eVTOL has other advantages.

Compared with the huge noise of a helicopter, the eVTOL new energy engine is quieter.

According to reports, the takeoff and landing noise of eVTOL is about 70dB, and the cruise noise is about 50dB, which is much lower than that of helicopters with takeoff and landing and cruise noises of about 140dB and 90dB, respectively.

In addition, electrification makes distributed propulsion possible. At present, the flying cars developed by various companies have multiple rotors or propellers. A product developed by Intel and Volocopter, a German flying car manufacturer, even has 18 rotors, compared to helicopters. With a single rotor, eVTOL has higher safety redundancy and improved propulsion efficiency. Experts call it "three times that of a helicopter."

After electrification, the structure of the flying car is simplified, and the cost of the flying car can be lowered.

  But there are still many technologies to be broken through. Like the current electric vehicles, eVTOLs released by many domestic and foreign companies also have endurance anxiety.

At present, many companies have launched eVTOL flight test products.

The EHang intelligent purely electric manned-level autopilot aircraft has a maximum load of 220 kg and a maximum range of 35 kilometers when fully loaded. 100 minutes.

The Traveler X2 recently exhibited by Xiaopeng Huitian has a battery life of 35 minutes and a maximum speed of 130km/h.

Fengfei Aviation’s V1500M has a cruising speed of up to 200km/h and a maximum range of 250 kilometers.

Foreign flying car companies are no exception. Joby Aviation’s aircraft has recently achieved a range of more than 241 kilometers and lasted 1 hour and 17 minutes.

  The short range and duration of flying cars are due to insufficient battery energy density.

Ehang Intelligent introduced to China News Weekly that battery technology is an area of ​​great concern to the entire industry.

The battery technology of aircraft is more complex than that of automobiles, requiring batteries with high energy density, high power density, wider temperature range and high safety.

Autopilot aircraft require a high battery discharge rate to support the aircraft’s take-off and landing. At the same time, the impact of battery weight on the aircraft must also be considered.

  Shen Haijun, a professor at the School of Aeronautics and Mechanics of Tongji University, further explained that unlike automobiles, from a mechanics point of view, aircraft have very strict weight requirements. Electric vehicles can be equipped with larger battery packs, but aircraft cannot. Breakthrough in the direction of energy density.

  In Zhang Yangjun's view, in terms of batteries, the more important issue is safety-the use of new energy power in flying cars will bring new aviation safety issues such as electrical safety, thermal safety, and hydrogen safety.

Although various flying car manufacturers have expressed their emphasis on safety and accumulated data after many test flights, Zhang Yangjun believes that the safety design and airworthiness research of key components such as motors, batteries, and electrified systems are very lacking in the industry. For some electric systems to meet the safety requirements of aviation regulations, a lot of work needs to be done.

  "I think that, in the current situation where there are still many bottlenecks such as regulations, the application of flying cars should first carry the load and then the people. Logistics is the best scenario for the current demonstration application of flying cars. The requirements for performance are relatively low. The data and experience accumulated in the logistics application process will provide an important basis for improving the safety of flying cars. Manned demonstration applications will start with specialized special fields such as emergency rescue, and then move to the field of mass transportation. It may be a more suitable way for manned demonstration applications." Zhang Yangjun told China News Weekly.

  People in the industry believe that ground traffic is mixed with people and vehicles, and in contrast, the air traffic environment is simpler.

However, Zhang Yangjun emphasized that the meteorological environment will seriously affect the safety of low-altitude flights.

For example, when a small manned aircraft is in operation, a sudden crosswind blows nearby, which may affect safety, and these microclimate environments are difficult to perceive.

  "Flying cars must be truly popular. For example, the cluster control of civil aviation means that it is useless for people to control on the ground. How to deal with sudden changes in the climate and environment is the biggest safety challenge facing flying cars. How do sensors perceive, make decisions and control To solve it through technology, this is the focus of the next step. Only auto companies and startups may not have the technical conditions, and more researchers need to use technology to solve them." Zhang Yangjun said.

Air surveillance will be a problem

  In 2010, Zhang Yangjun visited the SAIC-General Motors Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo. He was attracted by an animated video depicting urban intelligent transportation in 2030. The intelligent concept car is one of the important means of transportation.

"It is like a small load bay. People use their mobile phones to locate and call a car. After taking off, all orders on the ground and in the sky are automatically paired according to the route. Cars on the same route are assembled in a row and separated after arriving at the destination." The car in the video is a shared transportation tool that integrates electrification and intelligence. Zhang Yangjun and his fellow professors discussed the transportation after 2030. They believe that after electrification and intelligence, the next step in the automobile will be the integration of land and air. change.

After that, he began to pay more attention to flying cars.

  But flying cars are not just as simple as a car flying into the sky. Once realized, it will subvert the way humans travel.

Zhang Yangjun believes that at present, flying cars are still in the early stage from research and exploration to commercial application. The popularization of flying cars is not a matter of two products, nor is it just a matter of enterprises. It is closely related to policies and involves the design and manufacture of flying cars. , Airworthiness certification, urban management and low-altitude airspace management, etc., it is necessary to study and formulate corresponding regulations, standards and regulatory systems.

  Just as ground transportation has traffic lights, different lanes, and traffic rules, the future of flying cars will become reality, and route planning and regulations are also required. In addition to ensuring flight safety, low-altitude flight also involves protecting residents’ privacy. However, there is currently no urban air traffic in the world. Laws and regulations.

  Shen Haijun mentioned that China's laws and regulations on the airworthiness certification of flying cars are still blank.

In addition, China’s airspace control is the most stringent in the world. It was supervised by the Air Force in the past. With the reform of low-altitude airspace, some areas have opened up low-altitude pilots. However, in reality, the supervision is more stringent. In addition to the control of the civil aviation department, the public security department has also joined it.

In recent years, UAV flight declarations have been difficult. If flying cars are integrated into ground transportation in the future, the traffic control department will still be required to manage, and air supervision will be a difficult problem.

The integration of flying cars into ground transportation in the future may change the existing road system. How to adjust and transform will also be a huge system project.

  The relevant domestic departments have begun to formulate some standards.

Yihang introduced to China News Weekly that Yihang is the first manned self-driving aircraft airworthiness pilot unit approved by the Civil Aviation Administration of China, and is cooperating with the Civil Aviation Administration to formulate airworthiness certification standards.

  Although the standard has not yet been published, many flying car companies have rushed to formulate a clear time point for commercialization.

Joby plans to realize commercial services in 2024. Xiaopeng Huitian claims that it will mass produce flying cars in 2024, which can run and fly; Lilium plans to realize operations in 2025.

Xie Jia once mentioned that a consensus has been reached in the industry and that eVTOL's commercialization is promising within five years.

  "Commercialization refers to the company's ability to provide some operations of manned travel services in the air, such as replacing the role of helicopters on some key traffic nodes in the city, or on very congested lines. It is not a large-scale popularization. It may be There has been a substantial increase in penetration." Xie Jia told China News Weekly.

Before 2025, what eVTOL has to do is to continuously test flights, accumulate flight data, and obtain manned airworthiness certification.

  The academic circles are cautiously optimistic about flying cars.

Zhang Yangjun predicts that flying cars will go through three main stages in the future. In 2025, flying cars will be able to achieve demonstration commercial operations. Logistics, firefighting and emergency rescue are recent application scenarios.

It is expected that around 2030 will usher in the era of urban air traffic, and the technology and application scenarios of this period will give priority to supporting the air flight function attributes of flying cars and highlight the advantages of flight modes.

With the cross-border penetration and integration of automobile and aviation electrification and intelligent technology, and the continuous development and improvement of intelligent transportation facilities, the ground driving function attributes of flying cars in the future will be realized and strengthened.

Perhaps in the future, all cars will fly, and three-dimensional smart travel will be realized by around 2050.

  China News Weekly, Issue 43, 2021

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