Autonomous flying cars 'very close' for New Zealand

If Star Wars inspired holograms, and Back to the Future the hover board, has The Jetsons inspired the flying car? 

Whatever it was that captured human imagination, autonomous flying vehicles are not far off from becoming a reality in New Zealand, according to a Kiwi technology enthusiast. 

Tarver Graham, chief executive of digital innovations agency Gladeye, told The AM Show on Tuesday autonomous flying cars are "very close" to being deployed in Aotearoa. 

"They're prototyped and being tested. There's a company run by Google's founder that's testing them in the South Island," he said.

Mr Graham was referring to a pilot-less flying taxi project in the South Island spearheaded by Google co-founder Larry Page. In March, it was reported that New Zealand regulators approved plans for Zephyr Airworks, a subsidiary of Page's company Kitty Hawk, to develop the flying vehicles. 

The prototype being tested in the South Island, known as Cora, is a small electric aircraft capable of vertical take-off like a helicopter. It uses three onboard computers to calculate flight paths and it can carry up to two passengers, reports 

Christchurch Airport welcomed the testing of autonomous travel at the time, and said it had been in discussions with Kitty Hawk for a while, supporting its search for a suitable test space. 

"With New Zealand's internationally respected aviation certification processes, and the country's first on-road testing of a fully autonomous electric vehicle, the South Island is the obvious place to test Cora," said Christchurch Airport chief executive Malcolm Johns. 

The New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority is said to have given the project an experimental airworthiness certificate. Trialling the flying taxi service will take up to six years, with operations based around Christchurch, according to reports. 

It's understood New Zealand was chosen for testing the project because of its uncongested airspace. 

"New Zealand is recognised for its safety-focused regulatory environment and a strong history of excellence in airspace management. These qualities are vital in giving people confidence that we are serious about making Cora the best air taxi in the market," the company's website says. 

The Cora project envisages flying taxis becoming so common that "air travel will be woven into our daily lives". But Mr Graham says it might be a while before autonomous flying cars could ease Auckland's traffic problems. 

"I'm not sure people will be flying to work anytime soon, but they'll definitely fly to the Coromandel from Auckland, for example," he said. 

But there is certainly momentum behind the idea of autonomous flying vehicles in New Zealand. Ride-sharing company Uber has said it's working with Boeing to manufacture small aircraft, which it plans to trial in Auckland, alongside Sydney and Melbourne, as soon as 2020. 

Auckland's heavy traffic is said to have influenced Uber's decision to trial the 'UberAir' vehicles in the city. Head of Aviation Nikhil Goel told Newstalk ZB taking one of Uber's flying cabs could get you from Auckland CBD to the airport in just nine minutes. 

Auckland has the slowest motorways in all of Australasia, according to Mr Goel, so it's not hard to see why autonomous flying vehicles could be beneficial for New Zealand's biggest city.  

The city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has been testing helicopter-like electric autonomous taxi drones made by German autonomous vehicle specialist Volocopter since September 2017.