The Tesla CEO has revealed a way to make flying cars happen using SpaceX technology, bringing the idea one step closer to reality.

When Elon Musk announces that he’s going to build a flying car, it sounds, at first, like another share-brained scheme, or a publicity-seeking missile, but then you recall that lots of people talked about building electric vehicles, and he actually went out and did it.

Musk wandered into a Twitter thread last week where someone suggested that Tesla should be making something like the flying DeLorean from Back to the Future II to announce that “The new Roadster will actually do something like this”.

Because this sounded like a very early April Fool’s prank, Musk was asked if he was joking, to which he replied: “I’m not. Will use SpaceX cold gas thruster system with ultra-high pressure air in a composite over-wrapped pressure vessel in place of the 2 rear seats.”

Putting rocket boosters in a car would, he added, allow drivers/pilots/spacemen to “accelerate at the limit of human endurance”.

While the specifics might seem like Musk madness, the general idea of flying cars is one that companies as large and respected as Mercedes-Benz are seriously investing in. Wilko Stark, Vice President of Strategy and responsible for future technologies at Mercedes says ground-bound traffic is now so bad that we can’t fix it (although Musk has a plan for that, too, involving digging tunnels), so the only way is up.

He also wants us to think of flying cars as less like motor vehicles and more like human-sized drones.

“To make our world safer and more comfortable, we are on the cusp of a revolutionary moment when it comes to mobility, which has the potential for things we can’t even imagine,” Stark said in a speech at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, last year.

“We envision a third dimension, with drones that can fly people for inner-city transport, with a range of 30 to 50km.

“It’s a very challenging time, but we really have a chance now to change the future, and embrace the future.”

Benz has invested in a company called Volocopter, which produces a human-capable drone that has already conducted test flights in Dubai.

One Chinese company is already ahead of both Benz and Tesla, however, with what it calls
the “world’s first Autonomous Aerial Vehicle”, the EHang 184, already taking to the skies.

Company co-founder Derrick Xiong says the secret to creating a vehicle that will safely let people soar above the traffic, without the need for pilot licenses or tricky training, was starting small.

“We started in 2014, with the goal of trying to build an aircraft that’s super safe, safer than a helicopter, and is powered by electricity, so we started with drones, and worked up,” Xing said.
“This is not sci-fi imagining, or an extreme sport for the fearless. This machine is very stable and the controls are very simple, and precise. So, yeah, this is real.”

The EHang 184 (which stands for one passenger and eight propellers, mounted on four arms), is good for a 45km journey off a single battery charge, which takes around an hour. The Hang’s top speed is 130km/h and it can carry a 100kg payload. Xiong says it has already completed “more than 1000” test flights in China.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look anywhere near as cool as a flying DeLorean, or a flying Tesla for that matter. But you can bet Musk will fix that.

There is, of course, a chance that all of them will be beaten to the punch by the world’s ultimate disruptor company, Uber, which is also working on an air-taxi service, in conjunction with a highly credible outfit called Bell Helicopters, which just unveiled the Bell Nexus at this year’s CES in Las Vegas, an air taxi capable of vertical take-off and landings and expected to be flying passengers across town by the mid-2020s.

In short, flying cars are no joke. And Musk is, once again, very serious. And not just about publicity.