Inside the race to develop the first flying, self-driving car

Race to develop 1st flying, self-driving car

In a rural Oregon airport, Airbus is testing what could become the world's first autonomous flying air taxi – in other words, a flying, self-driving car. "CBS This Morning" got an exclusive look at the tests.  

One of Airbus' Oregon projects is Vahana, a prototype of a single-seat autonomous air taxi that takes off vertically, like a helicopter. In Sanskrit, Vahana means "that which carries, that which pulls."

After it takes off, its wings rotate, allowing it to fly like a plane. The battery powered aircraft can hit speeds of over 100 miles an hour, and fly up to 35 miles.

The prototype could be the answer to urban gridlock – but convincing the public could pose a challenge.

Hervé Hilaire, the project manager for Vahana, said he believes that people will get used to the idea of a flying vehicle that doesn't have a pilot "over time." But even among 18- to 24-year-olds, only about 1 in 5 say they'd fly in something without a pilot.

Hilaire has a plan to change people's minds. "You want to demonstrate perfect safety and real added value for the customer," he said. "And this is really about saving time in a convenient and safe way."   

Airbus' Silicon Valley incubator A3 took Vahana from a sketch to flight testing in less two years, using materials that were already commercially available. Matt Deal, head of flight test at Vahana, says that the team is currently working on "showing that we can execute a safe test flight, from take-off through transition to over 100 mph, and return safely to the ground."

Right now, the test flights only last a few minutes at a time. One of the challenges will be developing better, lighter batteries that let the planes fly father and longer.

Morgan Stanley predicts flying cars will be a $1.5 to $3 trillion business in 20 years, meaning the race is on to develop a fleet of ridesharing autonomous air taxis. Boeing's prototype took its first flight earlier this year.

At this month's Uber Elevate summit, nearly a dozen flying car concepts were on display, including helicopter maker Bell's full size but non-flying Nexus demonstrator. Nexus seats four passengers, and aims to enter customer service by the mid-2020s -- flying at 150 miles an hour for up to 150 miles. For a time, it will have a human operator onboard, but the goal is to make it fully autonomous.

"A lot of us grew up watching 'The Jetsons' and thought that was far-fetched," said Chad Stecker, the program manager for Nexus. "The reality is here today."

"When you look at the explosion and expansion of the population growth within cities […] there's really no ground based solutions that will be able to resolve those challenges," Stecker added. 

Acting FAA Adminsitrator Dan Elwell says it's too early to talk about timelines.

"Well, we're not ready today," he said. "We're all about gathering data to assure us of the safety for these vehicles. And unmanned is a much, much higher bar than a piloted vehicle for sure and we have a ways to go."

Regulations and a system to manage increasingly crowded airspace still need to be developed. For Airbus, Vahana is a bit like a first draft. It'll be up to future models to prove they can safely fly passengers. 

It will be years before people are flying in autonomous air taxis -- but already, a company in London is buying up rooftop space for landing pads, so they'll be prepared when the technology is ready to take off.