Business

Japan joins race to make flying cars

Bloomberg, JIJI

Japan is making a push to develop flying cars, enlisting companies including Uber Technologies Inc. and Airbus SE to join a public-private panel tasked with making airborne vehicles a Japanese reality in the next decade, people familiar with the matter say.

As part of its budget request for fiscal 2019, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said Friday it plans to seek ¥4.5 billion ($40.4 million) in funds to support private-sector development of high-performance batteries, motors and other equipment for flying cars.

The panel will draw up a road map for technological development and regulations by the end of this year. It will initially comprise about 20 companies including Boeing Co., NEC Corp., a Toyota Motor Corp.-backed startup called Cartivator, ANA Holdings Inc., Japan Airlines Co. and Yamato Holdings Co.

Delegates will gather Wednesday for the first of their monthly meetings.

An Uber spokeswoman confirmed the company’s participation in the group but declined to comment further. Representatives for Airbus, Boeing, ANA, JAL, NEC, Yamato and Cartivator also declined to comment, as did those for the trade and transport ministries.

Flying cars that can zoom over congested roads are closer to reality than many people think. Startups around the world are pursuing small aircraft, which until recently existed only in the realm of science fiction.

With Japanese companies trailing their global peers in electric vehicles and self-driving cars, the government is addressing the aircraft technology with urgency, stepping in to facilitate legislation and infrastructure to help gain leadership.

Many already have a head start. Uber, which will invest €20 million ($23 million) over the next five years to develop services for flying cars in a new facility in Paris, has set a goal of starting commercial operations for its air-taxi business by 2023.

Kitty Hawk, the Mountain View, California-based startup founded and backed by Google’s Larry Page, in June offered a glimpse of an aircraft prototype: a single-person recreational vehicle.

Other global companies envisioning this new form of transportation include Volkswagen AG, Daimler AG and Chinese carmaker Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd. Japanese carmakers have not yet announced any plans to develop flying cars.

METI chief Hiroshige Seko told reporters this month that flying cars could ease traffic snarls, help transportation in remote islands or mountainous areas during disasters and be used in the tourism industry.

As with aviation, the technology would need to win approval from several regulators — a process that could take years. And agencies will need to develop safety standards before commuters will embrace flying vehicles.

Japan wants to take a lead in writing the rules for the nascent industry because policymakers think the current aviation regulations are mostly set by Europe and the U.S., one of the people said.