BY OSAMU TSUKIMORI, STAFF WRITER
From horse-drawn carriages to the invention of cars, ships and air balloons, history shows that the change in human mobility happens only around once in a century.
And about 100 years after the start of mass production of Ford Motor Co.’s Model T, the human race is about to witness another mobility revolution, according to a former Toyota Motor Corp. engineer who now heads a startup that is betting on launching a commercial flying taxi service in 2023.
Tokyo-based SkyDrive Inc.’s CEO Tomohiro Fukuzawa is convinced that by 2050 anyone will be able to fly to any destination within the capital’s 23 wards in 10 minutes. The potential is enormous, with global demand for electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOL) set to reach $1.5 trillion (¥158 trillion) by around 2040, according to research by Morgan Stanley in 2019.
A market for the vehicles “could likely begin as an ultraniche add-on to existing transportation infrastructure, similar to how helicopters operate today,” said Rajeev Lalwani, Morgan Stanley’s lead analyst covering airlines and aircrafts. “They could later transform into a cost-effective, time-efficient method of traveling short to medium distances, eventually taking business away from car and airline companies.”
Although there are more than 100 flying car projects globally, including major international firms such as Boeing Co., Airbus SE and Uber Technologies Inc., the two-seater vehicle envisioned by SkyDrive is unique in that it is the world’s smallest flying car, and can fit in a parking space for two conventional cars.
A battery-powered prototype, with a pair of propellers installed at each of its four corners, achieved the nation’s first outdoor manned flight of a flying car last December.
Naysayers are skeptical about the possibility of making the flying cars of sci-fi movies like the DeLorean in the “Back to the Future” series a reality.
But flying car projects are getting a helping hand from Japan’s government, which is pushing for their commercialization in 2023.
The government’s ultimate goal is using airspace to transport people in big cities, to avoid traffic jams, and providing a new mode of transport for mountainous areas and remote islands, or for use in case of natural disasters and other emergencies.
SkyDrive has its roots in Cartivator, a volunteer organization formed by people who work in industries including autos and aviation. Its research on flying cars began in January 2014.
SkyDrive was founded in July 2018 to accelerate that initiative, its staff mainly members of Cartivator, and the firm has been conducting experiments at its testing ground in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture.
It claims its concept model, called SD-XX, is the world’s smallest eVTOL, at 1.5 meters tall and measuring 4 meters by 3.5 meters across. Resembling a car-size drone, the first model — which the firm hopes to debut in 2023 — would be able to fly at 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour, with a limited range of several tens of kilometers.
According to Fukuzawa, it won’t be until the late 2020s that the firm would be able to produce eVTOLs that can run on normal roads at speeds of up to 60 kph. But the small size, lightness and quietness of battery-powered aircraft would make it easier to set up takeoff and landing spots in highly convenient locations, like the flat top of a concrete building, compared with the limited number of heliports available for helicopters, for example.
Having attracted more than 100 sponsors including NEC Corp., Panasonic Corp. and Yazaki Corp. for financial, technical parts supply and human resource support, SkyDrive is making final preparations to demonstrate a manned flight this summer. It is aiming to commercialize an air taxi service in 2023, and sell a fully autonomous flying car for the general public in 2028.
In an interview with The Japan Times, SkyDrive CEO Fukuzawa described his plan to launch the taxi service in Osaka or Tokyo in 2023, prospects for export to the Southeast Asian market and how his company’s creation will be more convenient than helicopters.
What’s the biggest difficulty you have encountered in developing a flying car?
Because we’re making something that does not exist today, we have encountered various challenges we did not anticipate.
The two biggest difficulties are getting it certified for commercial flights and ensuring the same safety and reliability as existing aircraft — and changing the social climate, by letting the general public know about this air mobility, and making them want to ride a flying car.
We have already acquired government approval for flights in limited situations and places, but the hurdles for getting a certification for commercial flights are much higher.
The number of parts for a flying car are about one thousandth or one ten-thousandth of the number in a conventional aircraft, and it depends on how we proceed, but we expect the process to take about two years.
Six years since Cartivator first started working on developing a flying car, do you think you have come halfway to getting a formal commercial certification from the government?
No, we haven’t come that far, but the pace of development has been accelerating rapidly with the rise in the number of personnel in the venture.
Overall I think we have traveled only about 20 percent of the road so far, but that doesn’t mean it will take five times as much time from here.
What are your plans for commercialization in 2023?
We’re considering launching an air taxi service in big cities, either Osaka or Tokyo, with initial flights over the sea as it would be too risky to fly over many people all of a sudden.
We’re considering starting the service in the Osaka Bay area, with round trips between locations such as Universal Studios Japan, Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, Osaka Expo and Osaka’s planned integrated resort facility.
The ride will be only three to five minutes, compared with up to 20 minutes for land transportation, and will be fun and fast.
Because there’s a pilot, only one person will be able to use the service at a time. We’re looking to have 1,000 people enjoy the ride in the second year of the service in 2024.
The initial model will fly basically on auto pilot, but it’s not 100 percent autonomous because a pilot would need to maneuver it in case of an emergency, for example.
What would be the price for a taxi ride?
That’s under consideration and I can’t comment on details, but the fee will basically be much cheaper than a helicopter ride.
It usually costs ¥50,000 or ¥80,000 to ride on a helicopter for a few minutes or a little more than 10 minutes, but it will be significantly lower than that.
There are more than 100 similar flying car projects worldwide, so what’s unique about the SkyDrive SD-XX?
Design wise, it’s highly safe.
Some eVTOLs have propellers installed on the bottom, for example, which could cause damage to the propellers as they would hit the ground if the aircraft were to tilt even slightly.
To prevent such accidents, our eVTOLs have propellers installed on the upper half of the body, to boost safety margins.
Will you work on eVTOLs to accommodate more passengers in the future?
The problem with sky mobility is that the size will get bigger if we make room for more people.
The current problem with a helicopter (which accommodates more passengers) is that if you plan to travel from Tokyo to Hakone or Nagano, you would first need to get to Tokyo Heliport in Shinkiba. You need to get to Shinkiba Station and take a 20-minute taxi ride to the heliport. Then you spend another 10 minutes or more for boarding procedures, and if you had that much time, you could ride a shinkansen to go anywhere.
This air mobility, on the other hand, would let you fly from the heart of big cities.
Because it’s battery-powered and doesn’t need an engine, it’s quiet and compact. And you don’t need a runway as you can fly and land vertically. If you made a bigger one, you would then need to go to a heliport, so that would not be much different in convenience to existing helicopters.
That’s why we basically want to focus on a two-seater. A three-seater might be possible, but the weight is important for flying cars. If it’s a child seat for a third person, that could be possible.
What’s the main market for a flying car?
Initially we plan to provide the service in Japan, but we are aiming to go overseas quickly, especially Southeast Asia.
Why Southeast Asia?
There’s a strong need there, and the social acceptance of eVTOLs is high because the traffic causes a lot of problems there.
With the dense population, they can’t afford adequate space for lifting or landing, so a compact flying car would be a good match.
What will be the sales outlook and price when you introduce the fully autonomous flying car in 2028?
We expect annual sales to grow to at least 100 vehicles by 2028, and the price would be similar to that of an expensive car — or several million yen, as the price comes down when sales volumes go up.
Do you expect SkyDrive to undergo an initial public offering in the future?
Yes, I think an IPO would be a necessary step at some point in the future, but I don’t have a timeline yet.
What’s your long-term goal?
I’m really excited about the future prospects, because we’re about to witness a big improvement in mobility — which is rare, historically, starting from horses to cars, to airplanes and steamships.
About 100 years have passed since the debut of the Ford Model T, and we’re about to introduce an air taxi service in 2023, paving the way to achieve air travel anywhere without a need for roads or train tracks.
There are many other rivals in Europe and the United States, but we’d like to manufacture a vehicle that provides a comfortable ride with “Made in Japan” quality.