Flying cars are coming to the Japanese countryside

Japan's government wants to be ahead of the curve on airborne vehicles

For many people, flying cars are constrained to the imaginings of science fiction writers or the daydreams of industrialists like Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, who said: “Mark my words: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”

Ford wisely didn’t say when. But now, eighty years later, it looks like his prediction is about to come true.

At least half-a-dozen major projects to build flying cars are underway around the world. These include national programs in Singapore and Dubai, and private projects in Europe, China and the USA, with names like Airbus, Ehang and Boeing each hard at work to get its machine into the sky first.

In Japan, a public-private Council for Air Transportation Revolution was established last summer in a concerted effort to prevent Japan trailing behind in the push to make flying cars a reality. And what’s more, they could be coming to remote and rural areas before the big city.

New frontiers

So what is behind this sudden flurry of activity? The answer is that a number of technologies have sufficiently matured to make this futuristic concept possible.

For example, efficient compact electric motors, long-lived batteries, new light materials and sensor-driven autonomous control systems that are already controlling driverless cars and pilotless drones are being tested to help cars take to the air.

It so happens that Japan is strong in developing all these technologies. So much so that many of the twenty-two corporate members of the Council approached the government to sound out its support for creating a new industry before the Council was formed.

“We didn’t choose the [corporate] members,” says Hiroyuki Ushijima, a deputy director in the Manufacturing Industries Bureau at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). “Most of them came to us and other ministries seeking our support. That’s when we decided to form the Council.”

Partnership for innovation

In the six months following the Council’s establishment last August, the companies, several university professors and staff from the Civil Aviation Bureau of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLITT), and METI met a number of times to discuss the companies’ aims and plans.

Then, in December, the Council published a Roadmap Towards Air Transportation Revolution. The roadmap targets test flights to begin this year, aims to start business operations in 2023 and seeks to transport people in urban areas in the 2030s.

“We didn’t set these dates,” says Hiroki Tokunaga, a senior coordinator in the Civil Aviation Bureau, MLITT. “The companies set them. We discussed with them the rules and regulations that will be needed, for example, to certify the safety of their vehicles, the licensing required, and the issuing of permits for test flights.”

“Flying vehicles should help improve living conditions, the transport of goods, and local economies”

Specifics of the roadmap still have to be settled. However, Keita Arakaki, a Division Head in Japan Civil Aviation Bureau, MLITT, in a press briefing at the end of January, pointed out that there is a general sense in the Council that to gain social acceptance, operations will begin by carrying goods rather than people.

Rural revolution

Arakaki expects that initial operations will likely avoid densely populated areas such as Tokyo.

The Japanese capital, besides boasting an outstanding commuter train and subway network, is already served by helicopter services and by regular airplane flights at higher altitudes. This, says Arakaki, makes coordinating new flying vehicle services so that they operate safely with existing services a challenge.

“Therefore, I think it will be easier to start carrying people in rural and mountainous areas first,” said Arakaki.

Over 70 percent of Japan is mountainous. And, as noted by METI’s Ushijima, given that roads and other infrastructure in rural and mountainous areas are less developed, flying vehicles should help improve living conditions, the transport of goods, and local economies.

“Today, helicopters, for instance, are used to ferry people to isolated areas and to nearby islands,” says Ushijima. “Flying vehicles will be less expensive to do this in the future and maybe will be more convenient.”

Likewise, this new type of air mobility should help foster tourism by making access to hard-to-get-to scenic areas more convenient and cheaper, as well as providing visitors with scenic views from the air after arrival.

Their potential for providing relief services is also large. Japan is often hit by natural disasters — including earthquakes, typhoons, mud and rock slides, and volcanic eruptions.

When disasters inevitably strike, flying vehicles could replace more expensive and noisy helicopters as ambulances to ferry the injured to nearby hospitals, as well as carry out emergency relief services to towns and villages cut off from normal means of access.

Japan, perhaps more than many countries, has much to gain from this new source of emerging air mobility. And no communities stand to gain more than people living in rural areas. — John Boyd.

(Picture Credit: Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry)

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