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Not Quite a Flying Car but Damn Close: Meet the Airbus Vahana

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It’s not merely the roads in and around Silicon Valley where advanced transportation systems are being developed and vetted. The sky above the Bay Area is a prime proving ground for the latest aviation technology.

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The newest aircraft to join that field may soon be the Vahana, a yet-to-be-built aircraft from A³, the regional office of Airbus Group in San Jose, California. Engineers are working on a personal-transportation craft capable of vertical takeoffs and landings, making runways and roads obsolete. Also unneeded: pilots. If Airbus succeeds, the Vahana would use autonomous and unmanned technology to deliver people or packages to their destinations, potentially making the eight-rotor craft the first certified passenger aircraft without a pilot.

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Without referencing a certain Hanna-Barbera cartoon that made the idea of a flying vehicle for everyday commuting a novel future proposition, that appears to be the precise use case for the Airbus venture.

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“We seek to help enable truly vertical cities by opening up urban airways in a predictable and controlled manner,” wrote Rodin Lyasoff, the project’s chief executive officer. “We believe that full automation will allow us to achieve higher safety by minimizing human error. Our aircraft will follow predetermined flight paths, with only minor deviations if obstacle avoidance is needed.”

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Early renderings of the craft were released last month; Lyasoff says the company has completed the vehicle design and intends to build a full-size prototype by the end of 2017, with a demonstrator to follow in 2020. Airbus established its Silicon Valley venture in May 2015.

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The aircraft contains forward and rear wings each outfitted with four rotors that tilt into horizontal or vertical configurations for specific phases of flight. Vahana has not yet revealed which companies it is working with to build the prototype but says it will “share a deep dive on our system design and analysis” in a forthcoming update.

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Sketches and design underpinnings of the aircraft appear to be based on the HyperCommuter concept that gained traction with NASA engineers two years ago.

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The same technologies driving rapid changes in the auto industry—lightweight materials, more energy-dense battery options, autonomous technology, and obstacle detection—make the Vahana more affordable and potentially more plausible. But if there’s a theoretical downside to this futuristic concept, it’s that it continues the pattern of single-occupant commuting that clogs U.S. roads today. More than three-quarters of Americans drive to work alone in cars, so the skies of tomorrow could become as crowded as the highways of today.

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