“Cars fly freely in the sky.” When you hear that, you probably vision images from sci-fi movies before your eyes. But when this will be implemented broadly, what will the world be like?
OSI Tokyo was able to interview Mr. Tomohiro Fukuzawa, the CEO of “SkyDrive”, a startup company that is developing an aerial vehicle called the eVTOL (electric Vehicle TakeOff and Landing aircraft). We asked him to talk about the company’s challenges in Japan where new technologies and ideas are not readily accepted, the company’s efforts to overcome them, and the company’s future vision.
The eVTOL, which completed a manned flight test at the end of August, is a single-passenger vehicle manned by a pilot. It measures 4.0 meters in length, 3.5 meters in width, and 1.5 meters in height, and has two propellers on each of its four corners that enable it to reach a top speed of 40 to 50 kilometers per hour. It can take off and land in spaces as small as two parking spots. In 2023, the company plans to start an air taxi business that connects short distances in the bay area of Osaka.
This huge undertaking had its beginning in 2012, when a group of interested people in the aviation, automotive, and startup communities formed “Cart!vator,” an association with the goal of creating a “flying car”. In 2018, some members of this group founded the startup company SkyDrive, which currently sells commercial drones for industrial logistics. These drones are used to transport heavy goods, mainly for transporting materials at construction sites in mountainous areas. SkyDrive has been supported by more than 100 companies, including TOYOTA, NEC, and Panasonic.
Despite the fact that many new technologies have been created in Japan, Mr. Fukuzawa says, “Japanese people are reluctant to accept such new things. Uber and Air B&B were three or four years behind China and the US in terms of penetration.” In fact, if you type “Japanese people, new things” into a Google search, “denial” comes up as the subsequent autofill suggestion for the search. Fukuzawa says that this comes from a Japanese anxiety towards untested technologies, and that he is aiming to change this mentality by creating products that do not focus only on businessmen, but that make both children and mothers feel safe enough to think that “I want to ride on it.”.
On the regulatory front, they are holding monthly meetings with the Japanese government to discuss the safety of the vehicle, the location of take-off and landing sites, and the driver’s license system, etc. At the moment, there are only a few countries currently discussing regulatory possibilities given the novelty of the industry at this stage. In Japan, the government and private sector decided to work together on this starting roughly three years ago, with a view to starting business by 2023. Similar technologies and ambitions can also be found in other countries and with other types of solutions.
“We’ve all seen sci-fi movies with flying cars, and technologically, we thought we’d have a life somewhere in the world that we’ve seen in movies. So we wanted to do it ourselves in Japan. That’s how it started,” says Fukuzawa, who envisions many flying cars flying in the sky in the future, and says he needs a smarter idea than the current “flying route” and is thinking about a new life in the sky using 3D. He says the company is looking at ways to ensure that its drones don’t collide with each other. He said he now needs a type of pilot license to operate the eVTOL, but he hopes to move to a self-driving system in the future and develop the business in three to four years. With such solution, the world would see a mobility-as-a-service concept transporting people from A to B in 3D space, not dependent on limitations of traditional roads.
While we may not live in a scene from a sci-fi movie just yet, companies such as SkyDrive are working to make this a reality in the near future. There are a number of hurdles to overcome before this can happen, such as regulatory issues and social acceptance, but efforts are being made to step-by-step move forward. Or upward.
Shiori Schules and Michael Jacob