This Startup Wants To Take On Uber And Lyft With Self-Flying Cars

Imagine a world in which you call up a plane on your smartphone as easily as you can summon cars from Uber and Lyft. Then take it to the next level: The plane has no pilot, completely controlled by automatic algorithms.

That’s the dream of Juraj Vaculik, CEO of AeroMobil, which unveiled its prototype flying car last year. The company has an aggressive launch date of 2017 for that vehicle, which Vaculik describes as a “Ferrari with wings.” But during a keynote at South by Southwest Interactive, Vaculik announced AeroMobil’s plan for the next generation of these vehicles: self-flying cars.

“[Self-driving] technology is coming to the car, but as an autopilot, it’s already there,” Vaculik said. “There are already systems for taking off and landing automatically. These two technologies can work together.”

AeroMobil has yet to get regulatory approval for its “normal” flying car, and self-driving cars have their own regulatory hurdles to navigate, so talk of pilotless flying cars might sound premature. But Vaculik and his co-founder Stefan Klein are serious, and have already spec’d out the design.

The vehicle will be fully autonomous, and thanks to a hybrid engine, it’ll have a 900-mile range — or about three hours of flying — so it’ll be more about cutting down time for a regional jaunt than international travel. The car will also have four seats, so there will be room for a whole family. Most importantly, an advanced parachute-deployment system will be present in case the autopilot ever fails.

“What’s better than a car, though, is that you can press what we’re calling a panic button, and the parachute will be deployed, and it’ll safety land via parachute,” Vaculik explained.

The problem with flying cars, however, is that you typically need to go to the airport anyway — a hassle that other flying-car companies, such as Terrafugia, have built into their business model.

Vaculik said he thinks AeroMobil has a better way: Its cars (pilotless or otherwise) will have the capability to take off and land on long strips of flat grass, so any field will do. He envisions easy-to-build runways and landing strips that exist right beside highways, enabling flying cars to land, retract their wings and join highway traffic seamlessly.

Add a robot pilot to that equation, and suddenly becoming the Uber for air travel becomes a real possibility. With a driverless “air taxi,” a person’s radius for quick visits increases dramatically. A family could conceivably dial up an AeroMobil flying car to visit friends or grandparents two states away, then take another flight a few hours later when it’s time to go home.

“The sharing economy is excellent for us,” Vaculik said. “People will have this opportunity to call a ‘flying Uber,’ which will not just deliver you to the airport, but to your final destination.”

Driverless cars are doubtlessly the future of transportation, so it’s logical to extend that idea to passenger planes at some point. Still, the obstacle of regulatory approval might pale in comparison to consumer reluctance: Lots of people don’t trust even self-driving cars — throw the natural fear of flying into the mix, and AeroMobil’s dream might be over before it even begins.

Than again, the wonder and promise of a Jetsons-like world might trump any fears. Vaculik’s presentation got an enthusiastic response at SXSW, and the company’s board just recruited visionary entrepreneur Dean Kamen.

Where we’re going, we might not need roads, after all.

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