IEEE Talks Transportation Electrification: Dr. Kaushik Rajashekara

Kaushik Rajashekara on Why Flying Cars are Ready to Go Mainstream

raja k photo 164x200Kaushik Rajashekara
is a Distinguished Professor of Engineering at the University of Houston, Texas and a Distinguished Lecturer for the IEEE Transportation Electrification Community. Prior to this, he worked in UT Dallas, Rolls-Royce, General Motors, and Delphi Corporations.  In this interview, he explores the technologies and markets for flying cars.


Question: Most people would never consider buying a flying car because it sounds so far-fetched, like something out of “The Jetsons.” Why should they take it seriously?

Kaushik Rajashekara: One reason is because flying cars have been in development for a century. Aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss built the first one in 1917. Lots of other companies have been working on flying cars since then, including Ford Motor Co., which considered selling one in the 1970s until the oil crisis grounded that project.

Ford wasn’t the only household brand that believed flying cars could be a mainstream transportation option. Recently several companies have shown interest in flying cars. For example, Uber’s Elevate initiative would extend ride-sharing to flying cars. It’s working with cities such as Dallas and Dubai to demo its first flying car service by 2020. And Larry Page has invested $100 million so far in developing a flying car.

Question: Do flying cars need runways to take off and land?

Rajashekara: Many first-generation models did. That obviously isn’t practical for urban and suburban areas, so there’s been a lot of work on vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) designs. As the name implies, they can ascend from or descend onto a small area such as a driveway or parking garage roof. So the VTOL design alone does a lot in terms of increasing the potential market for flying cars.

Question: How has technology advanced over the past century in ways that make flying cars more practical?

Rajashekara: VTOL is one example. Many military aircrafts have VTOL, so flying car manufacturers can leverage the R&D that’s gone into refining that design over the past several decades. Moller International developed the first VTOL flying car in 1966. Its latest model, the Skycar 400, is noteworthy because it is FAA compliant (not FAA approved) as a light sport aviation vehicle, which means it doesn’t require a pilot’s license.

Flying cars can also leverage the technologies being developed and refined for electric/hybrid cars. For example, auto manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to increase battery capacity while also reducing their weight. Flying cars that are electric/hybrid need lighter, more powerful, batteries too. In addition to batteries, they can utilize the R&D on high-density power electronics and high-density electric motors that automakers and aerospace manufacturers are conducting.

Same thing with the charging infrastructure in homes and public places for electric/hybrid cars. Terrafugia’s TF-X can recharge its batteries at car-charging stations.

Yet another example is the technologies being developed and refined for autonomous vehicles and collision avoidance, such as vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2V/V2I) communications. Flying cars can adapt those technologies not only to maximize safety but also to help reduce a major barrier to customer adoption and regulatory approval: the fear that millions of amateur pilots means a high risk of crashes.

There’s one more benefit of adapting and adopting the technologies that automakers and aerospace manufacturers have developed. Those industries are much bigger, so flying car manufacturers—and their customers—can capitalize on their economies of scale.

Question: Are flying cars a good fit for cities, where roads are congested? Or do they have more potential in rural areas and developing countries, where infrastructure is limited? 

Rajashekara: Both. In cities, flying cars can reduce the need to expand roads and bridges by shifting some of that traffic to the skies. Less gridlock also means less pollution, so flying cars also have some potential health and environmental benefits.

In developed countries, cities and suburbs also have the electrical infrastructure necessary to charge electric/hybrid flying cars. Granted, the power grid will need to expand capacity, but the growing popularity of electric/hybrid is already paving the way for that.

In rural areas and developing countries, flying cars could enable transportation and commerce where roads are poor or non-existent. For example, there are communities in colder climates such as northern Canada that are cut off from the rest of civilization when their ice roads melt back into rivers. Flying cars could provide those residents with transportation during spring and summer.

Rural areas and developing countries often have limited electrical infrastructure, but that’s not necessarily a barrier. Earlier I mentioned the advances in battery capacity and electrical motor efficiency. These advances help make it practical to use solar and/or wind to charge electric/hybrid flying cars in places where the grid is unreliable or simply unavailable.