By: Todd Crowell

Some 70 years after the idea of flying cars popped up in the 1950s – widely dismissed at the time as Buck Rogers stuff – the concept is coming back and is no longer strictly the province of science fiction.

By some estimates the flying car could be a commercial reality by 2030, while some promoters of “air mobility” says that they will have a car on the market by the end of this year that is a cross between a helicopter and a drone.

There has also been talk of having a Japanese prototype ready for the 2020 Olympic Games held next year in Tokyo. The car might be used to light the eternal flame at the opening ceremony – certainly a great way to demonstrate Japan’s tech prowess.

So why are we taking seriously something that was Buck Rogers stuff a few decades ago?

“Many different pieces are falling into place,” said Kenji Mikami, director of the Manufacturing Industries Technology Strategy Office of the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry (MITI). “Don’t think of this as a pie-in-the-sky thing,” Mikami told reporters at a briefing for the Tokyo press.

Indeed, flying car technology rests on three technologies that are by no means Buck Rogers stuff. The first is electric powering, such as in electric cars. Next is the advent of driverless, or “autonomous” cars and finally vertical take off and landing VTOL as in the military.

The ministry has convened a 25-member private-public council to oversee the technical development of the flying machines. Curiously, none of Japan’ fabled carmakers is on the council save for the president of SkyDrive, which is affiliated with Toyota.

The development of flying cars is a worldwide phenomenon, with many of the high-tech companies betting that they will eventually become commercially viable entries.

Terrafugia, a subsidiary of Volvo, says that its flying car will actually be commercially viable by the end of this year. Google founder Larry Page is fast at work on its Kitty Hawk flying car project.

Boeing’s entry into the world of flying vehicles conducted a flight test for its entry, BoeingNeXt.in January, “In one year we have progressed from a conceptual design to a flying prototype, said Boeing’s Chief Technology Officer to AFP.

Tests will continue to advance the safety and reliability of on-demand autonomous air transformation, says the company. Boeing’s entry has only a very modest range of 80 kilometers, although other prototypes or designs have ranges that exceed 400 km.

Ehang, the Chinese drone maker, is developing a one-seater “184” version. It has conducted test flights in China and Dubai. Singapore, too, is conducting feasibility studies with the cooperation of the Ministry of Transport.

The Japanese entry farthest along is the SkyDrive being built and designed at the Toyota at its Aiichi Prefecture complex with support from Toyotas. It claims to have a commercial production by 2025 and a prototype early enough to light that Olympic flame.

The development of flying cars more in the hands of drone makers than automobile, companies which are, of course, working feverishly on two of the main components of flying cars –electric propulsion and autonomy behind the wheel.

The arrival of flying cars poses numerous safety, cost, range and most importantly social acceptance. They are touted as a solution to the growing ground traffic congestion problem, without having t spend a lot of money on new transportation infrastructure.

That’s why many involved in developing flying cars think that thy will mainly serve in more remote, rural areas of with outlying islands where transportation options are relatively few. Only then will they become more common in urban area.

But flying cars will have to pass considerable hurdles before they become common place. One concern, of course is safety. If you break down in a flying car in mid-flight just about the only option is to fall out of the sky.

It takes considerable training to learn and be certified to fly a regular airplane or helicopter. The flying car presumes that any one who can drive a regular automobile is qualified to fly a car (of course the computer does the flying).

Cost is another consideration. The TX being developed by Terraugia, says its entry costs US$279,000, or about as much as a yacht. So flying cars have a very long way to go before they become affordable.

Undoubtedly, the biggest hurdle social acceptance. After all, in the future, there may be literally hundreds of flying cars over large cities like Tokyo, competing for air space along with drones delivering packages not to mention conventional aircraft and helicopters, all buzzing around like gnats.

So maybe flying cars really are still Buck Rogers stuff.