Is it a plane, is it a pain? The Audi Pop.Up Next AG pop.up next self-driving automobile and passenger drone at the 88th Geneva International Motor Show. Picture: Bloomberg/Stefan Wermuth
Is it a plane, is it a pain? The Audi Pop.Up Next AG pop.up next self-driving automobile and passenger drone at the 88th Geneva International Motor Show. Picture: Bloomberg/Stefan Wermuth

You’re running late. The city is gridlocked thanks to the peak hour traffic and you are in danger of missing your appointment.

You quickly open an app on your smartphone and hop into a nearby pod.

Soon a giant drone-like machine descends from the sky and clips onto the carbon fibre and glass bubble that surrounds you, pulling you up into the air.

You fly high above the city’s traffic. As you near your destination, your app locates a free wheel base, enabling you to descend and dock. The drone breaks away and your new wheels start turning, transforming your pod into an autonomous (driverless) car for the rest of your journey.

Hollywood has, for years, fed us tales of flying DeLoreans, space taxis and the Jetsons’ flying family bubble cars.

Now it seems the race is on to make those dreams a reality.

The scene described above is exactly how Airbus SE and Volkswagen’s Audi unit’s "Pop.Up Next" will work. The drone-like flying taxi/electric city car combo was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March.

Now the German government has signed a letter of intent with executives from both companies, allowing them to test the flying taxi-pod around Audi’s home town, Ingolstadt in Bavaria.

"Flying taxis aren’t a vision any longer — they can take us off into a new dimension of mobility," says Andreas Scheuer, Germany’s transport minister.

He’s right: flying vehicles seem to be the new "space race".

Those stepping up to the plate include big-name aviation companies, start-ups and even Google co-founder Larry Page.

Boeing has just unveiled the first round of finalists in its GoFly competition, which invited designs for personal flying vehicles that must be able to take off vertically — or nearly vertically — and carry someone 32km without needing to land and recharge.

It has given 10 teams — from Latvia, the Netherlands, Japan, the UK and the US — US$20,000 to begin to turn their written proposals into reality for a 2019 lift-off. With designs ranging from egglike helicopter pods, drone motorcycles and a chair with 10 rotors beneath it, the teams are competing for $2m and the full intellectual property rights to their creations.

But the biggest name on everyone’s lips as far as flying vehicles go is still Uber.

Picture: Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images
Picture: Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images

Following its Elevate summit in May, Uber says it will increase

its number of testing sites and has brought forward its timeline for what it calls UberAIR from 2023 to 2020.

These timelines are bold claims for a company that has no physical aircraft to show (yet). It has plans to build takeoff and landing points.

But considering the logistics needed to pull off a feat of that scale and in that time frame, it’s going to take more than gusto and these "skyport" contracts.

It will have to address noise and air pollution and very real concerns about safety.

Parachutes don’t tend to work well below 800m. The lack of trained pilots to fly the vehicles is a major limitation — and Uber has said it won’t opt for a fully automated solution initially.

Even when it does, getting people to trust a no-pilot flying machine won’t happen overnight.

It’s hard to imagine just how SA’s own metered taxi industry will react, given that it is already at war with Uber, though I would imagine it will be harder to set cars on fire if they are in the air.

Even with all the fanfare, some experts are not entirely convinced. Gartner, a leading research and advisory service, says that even though flying autonomous vehicle technology is developing rapidly, it’s likely to be more disruptive than transformational. Researchers Kimberly Harris-Ferrante and Michael Ramsey believe that "high costs, safety concerns and regulatory burdens are likely to limit the use of this overhyped technology".

They’re not the only ones to think so. Even billionaire Elon Musk, the man who likes to fly things into space, is sceptical about the economics and safety of electric-powered aircraft and finds it difficult to imagine the flying car becoming a scalable solution.

He recently told Bloomberg that he’d be worried about hubcaps falling out of the sky and killing someone.

But not even the Wright brothers looked completely comfortable in their fabric and wood aircraft back in 1903. Progress took place nonetheless. For some, a flying taxi ride is still more of a case of when, than if.