To date, Toyota’s commitment to electric vehicles has been somewhat questionable, but its commitment to technological advancement has frequently been demonstrated. Indeed, just this week, Toyota announced that it was the number one automaker in the U.S. Trademarks and Patents Office’s list of companies with the most patents filed in the last year.
And most of those patents do seem to relate to hydrogen fuel cell technologies, more efficient engine designs and advanced telematics systems, some of which can be seen in its first production hydrogen fuel cell car — the 2016 Toyota Mirai FCV. But on the 23rd June, Toyota was awarded a U.S. patent which made us and many other news outlets do a double-take. That’s because the patent in question wasn’t for another engine technology or in car system but for something completely different: a flying car.
Now it should be borne in mind here that Richard Feynman famously demonstrated the minimal amount of consideration required to become a patent holder and de-facto expert for an invention: simply commenting (when pushed) to the Los Almos’ project patent officer that you could create a nuclear submarine or aeroplane by plonking a reactor in and using it as the power source. So just because Toyota has applied for a patent on a flying car doesn’t mean that we’ll be seeing the Toyota Prius – now with wings™ — any time soon. But a look at the patent does suggest that this is more than just a cursory back of a napkin thought experiment.
Flying cars, or at least the potential for them, have been with us since before either planes, or cars, were practical everyday objects. But only recently has the concept even become remotely realistic. Indeed, the idea has recently been mooted that flying vehicles may actually be an easier target for autonomy than cars on the road. Airspace is already a much more controlled environment with longstanding developments in autopilot systems, so despite the challenges of controlling vehicles in 3 planes rather than two it has been suggested that a substantial chunk of the future of transportation may be airborne.
We’ve seen them before too. Back in the 1960s, about the time that we were all getting excited about the Amphicar (a car which transformed into a boat but had a terrible tendency to rust) we saw the Aerocar: a bubble-like car which could transform into a small private plane in relatively short time. Super-expensive to build, the Aerocar may have made a passable plane but was a terrible car.
More recently, we’ve seen the Terrafugia Transition, a working (if still expensive) flying car built with 21st century technology that is heading towards a planned serial production date of 2018. And with its advanced avionics and automated folding wings, it seems likely that at least for the wealthy, the Terrafugia Transition could make flying cars something more than the fevered dreams of science fiction writers in the very near future. But whilst the Terrafugia Transition is pretty damn cool – it’s a flying car – it also makes some substantial compromises and – on the road its current iteration really does look like a plane with its wings folded, rather than well, a car. And disappointingly it runs on gasoline.
Which brings us back to Toyota’s patent, which shows a car with a dinky propeller at the rear – much like the one used by Terrafugia, with no mention of the power source that will drive that propeller. However, the rest of the concept appears much less compromised and is reliant on some nifty concepts including a shape-morphing fuselage. The wings themselves appear to be tensile materials stretched using hydraulics that tuck away when not in use. All of this produces a vehicle that may be aerodynamic and usable both on the ground and in the air, and that may be more recognizably a car when rolling down the road.
Not a plane with folded wings or a car with some weird wing-shape appendage strapped on the back.
At least partially this seems driven by a desire to protect the delicate wing surfaces from the abuse they’re likely to receive on the ground. In an airfield setting it’s pretty unlikely someone’s going to prang your plane when they park. But out in the big wide world, when you’re parked at work and someone misjudges their reverse, well. While you might drive home with a big scrape down the door it’s going to be rather more upsetting if they bend a wing and your flight home becomes impossible. So whilst the Terrafugia Transition (and its computer-controlled concept car sibling, the autonomous-flight, hybrid-engined Terrafugia TF-X) are pretty nifty as playthings, it looks like Toyota’s grand plan may be something that’s at least a little more practical day-to-day. At least, as far as practical goes for a flying car.
What Toyota’s flying car patent does at least prove is that someone, somewhere within Toyota is seriously considering a flying car. But what will it be powered by — and will it make it to production?
With Toyota’s long standing reluctance to walk down the path of electrification – so much so that it has alienated some customers who’ve purchased Toyota’s limited run EVs with their lackluster support – it’s questionable whether we’ll be lucky enough to see a hybrid, electric or fuel cell flying car. But perhaps a Toyota EV flying car is slightly more likely than might be initially thought given the growth of personal air travel in the last few decades, not to mention the major advances being made in electric airplane technology by traditional airplane manufacturers and electric plane startups alike.
Right now, electric airplanes are still very much curiosities, despite some fantastic technological feats from the likes of the Solar Impulse 2 team and some truly amazing short-range electric planes and sailplanes entering the market now. For now then, we’d guess Toyota’s flying plane idea would rely on something other than pure battery electric power. Given Toyota’s 35-year plan to bring fuel cell vehicles to market dominance, albeit with some electric cars on the side, hydrogen fuel cell technology could be a possibility, but is just as unlikely as electric power for the moment — at least until it has miniaturized hydrogen fuel cell stack technology a little more.
Which leaves us a little lost, asking if Toyota’s flying car concept is just blue-sky thinking or a serious attempt to capture a new and exciting market. Only time will tell, but until then we can dream of hopping in our car and flying to our destination.
Are you waiting for a flying car? Or do you think the future of transportation’s more grounded? Let us know in the comments below.
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