It would be a truly Olympic feat.
A start-up backed by Japanese automaker Toyota revealed a rudimentary prototype of a flying car, aiming to whisk a driver through the air to light the Olympic torch in Tokyo in summer 2020.
Although the start-up is not officially collaborating with Toyota, the automaker confirmed to USA TODAY that it is exploring “aerial solutions” on its own in early-stage research. And some of its employees are aiding the start-up on a voluntary basis.
Toyota described its own flying car ambitions as “in the very early stages” and said “nothing has been decided yet about commercialization.”
Still, the involvement of the world’s second-largest automaker reflects a serious step forward for flying cars amid a swirling debate over whether they’re realistic at all.
“Within Toyota, we are advancing broad research and development on ways of transportation — including aerial solutions — that can lead to a prosperous society in the future,” the company said in a statement.
To be sure, the start-up venture, dubbed Cartivator Resource Management, got off to a sputtering start Saturday.
Using aluminum framing, eight propellers and sensors to fly — and cushioned by basketballs attached to the bottom of its frame — Cartivator’s Sky Drive vehicle flew to eye level for several seconds before crashing back to the earth and suffering damage.
Further flight attempts were abandoned. Needless to say, this was not a day of flight that will go down in history alongside the Wright brothers.
Still, the company, which got nearly $400,000 from Toyota, deemed the liftoff a success and said it’s charting a path toward manned flight in 2019.
Project leader Tsubasa Nakamura said in a blog post that Cartivator would reveal a redesigned prototype in November.
“I really appreciate Toyota group companies, and other companies or individuals supporting us so far,” he said. “We are able to accelerate our development because of this support.”
Cartivator’s formation places the company in direct competition with many other high-profile flying-car ventures, including efforts by Google co-founder Larry Page and ride-hailing app Uber.
Start-ups taking a crack at flying cars include Netherlands-based PAL-V and Slovakia-based AeroMobil, which are accepting orders for flying cars that would require a runway and a pilot’s license. Massachusetts-based Terrafugia and Germany’s Lilium Aviation are developing cars that take off and land vertically.
Toyota’s entry into the flying car space could take the race to a new stratosphere.
The company said it “shares the same desire” as Cartivator to ignite the Olympic flame in 2020 using the flying car.
But the company’s entry into the space also renews the debate over whether flying cars are feasible at all.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is a skeptic. The billionaire innovator, who doubles as CEO of SpaceX with dreams of colonizing Mars, said recently in an interview at TED Talks that he likes flying things but that flying cars aren’t doable.
“There is a challenge with flying cars in that they’ll be quite noisy, the wind force generated will be very high,” he said.
And from a practical perspective: “If something’s flying over your head and there’s a whole bunch of flying cars going all over the place, that is not an anxiety-reducing situation,” Musk said. “You’re thinking, ‘Did they service their hub cab, or is it going to come off and guillotine me?'”
Consumers are worried, too. About 83% say they’re very concerned or moderately concerned about the overall safety, according to a recent survey by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.
Count Uber among the companies that are taking flying cars seriously. Despite legal roadblocks in Uber’s development of autonomous cars, the company recently pledged to demonstrate a working flying vehicle that takes off and lands vertically at the 2020 World Expo in Dubai.
“Urban aviation is a natural next step for Uber,” chief product officer Jeff Holden said in April.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.
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