OSAKA (YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEW NETWORK) - Flying cars are expected to be used as a means of transportation to the site of the Osaka-Kansai Japan Expo 2025.
The Osaka prefectural and city governments signed a partnership agreement with SkyDrive, a Tokyo-based start-up, with a view to realising the operation of flying cars at the Expo.
The company, established in 2018 by former employees of Toyota Motor, aims to launch a flying car operation business by 2025. It plans for the Expo to be the stage for its unveiling.
In May this year, the central government decided to set up a working group to examine safety standards and other issues related to flying the cars at the Expo.
According to the plan, a take-off and landing site will be set up in the Tempozan area in Minato Ward, Osaka, about 5km from the Expo venue at Yumeshima, also in Osaka, and a two-seater flying car is to shuttle between the two locations.
"We would like to open the world of flying cars with the Expo as a starting point," SkyDrive president Tomohiro Fukuzawa said at a press conference.
The company was to start a demonstration test in the Osaka Bay area this month. For the time being, the company will not carry people on the flying car. The firm will instead fly a large drone to check the flight conditions and battery consumption.
Yet many problems remain to be solved before the technology can come to a street - or a sky - near you. It is not yet clear when these futuristic vehicles will be integrated into everyday infrastructure.
German company Volocopter, which is planning a flying taxi business, has also proposed to fly at the Expo 2025.
At a government meeting held in May, Volocopter presented a concept under which it would cover the 30km from Kansai Airport to Yumeshima in about 21 minutes by flying car, and the 15km from Kobe Airport in about 11 minutes.
A wide variety of flying cars have appeared in science fiction as symbols of futuristic worlds - from the speeder bikes of "Star Wars" to the spinners of "Blade Runner".
Japan's Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry envisions an aircraft that combines electric power, autonomous operation and vertical take-off and landing abilities.
The most common type currently under development is a larger version of the now familiar drones that use electric propellers to hover.
As they have fewer parts than helicopters, maintenance costs are lower. Autonomous operation using artificial intelligence and sensors also eliminates the need for a pilot. They are also less noisy and can take off and land at even more locations than helicopters.
Flying cars are expected to be used for various purposes such as transporting disaster victims and doctors, as well as for leisure activities.
According to SkyDrive, about 400 development projects are under way around the world.
Morgan Stanley of the United States estimates that the global market for flying cars will be worth about US$1.5 trillion (S$2 trillion) by 2040.
There will be various challenges for flying cars to move about in a space without lanes and signals, unlike roads.
Seeking to lead the international competition to develop flying cars, the Japanese government established a public-private council of business operators and experts in 2018 to discuss legal and technical issues.
Flying cars are expected to be treated as airplanes, helicopters and other aircraft under the Civil Aeronautics Law.
Aircraft are not allowed to fly below the minimum safe altitude set by ministry ordinance. Presently, this means 300m above the highest buildings in urban areas and 150m above water.
Flying car manufacturers are calling for a review of the rules to allow short flights at lower altitudes.
Aircraft are required to meet strict safety standards, such as annual inspections for airworthiness that check the strength and performance of the aircraft to prevent accidents.
There will be more discussions on how to apply such safety measures to flying cars.
A mechanism to avoid collisions with other flying objects such as helicopters and drones is also essential. The government is considering the development of control technology to manage flight operations in a unified manner.
There are many technical challenges to flying freely in the sky, so, for the time being, flying cars are likely to follow fixed routes over unpopulated areas or water.
To prepare for unforeseen circumstances, the government is considering the possibility of requiring a pilot on board instead of using a fully automated vehicle at the Expo.
"The Expo is a great opportunity to demonstrate the convenience of flying cars. We want to make it a reality after ensuring safety and stimulating social demand," a government official said.