Will flying cars take off? Japan’s government hopes so

In this Sept. 13, 2018 photo, Atsushi Taguchi, a "drone grapher," as those specializing in drone video are called, who teaches at Tokyo film school Digital Hollywood, speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Tokyo. (AP)
Updated 18 September 2018
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Will flying cars take off? Japan’s government hopes so

  • This vision of the future is driving the Japanese government’s “flying car” project

TOKYO: Electric drones booked through smartphones pick people up from office rooftops, shortening travel time by hours, reducing the need for parking and clearing smog from the air.
This vision of the future is driving the Japanese government’s “flying car” project. Major carrier All Nippon Airways, electronics company NEC Corp. and more than a dozen other companies and academic experts hope to have a road map ready by the year’s end.
“This is such a totally new sector Japan has a good chance for not falling behind,” said Fumiaki Ebihara, the government official in charge of the project.
Nobody believes people are going to be zipping around in flying cars any time soon. Many hurdles remain, such as battery life, the need for regulations and, of course, safety concerns. But dozens of similar projects are popping up around the world. The prototypes so far are less like traditional cars and more like drones big enough to hold people.
A flying car is defined as an aircraft that’s electric, or hybrid electric, with driverless capabilities, that can land and takeoff vertically.
They are often called EVtol, which stands for “electric vertical takeoff and landing” aircraft.
The flying car concepts promise to be better than helicopters, which are expensive to maintain, noisy to fly and require trained pilots, Ebihara and other proponents say.
“You may think of ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘Gundam,’ or ‘Doraemon,’” Ebihara said, referring to vehicles of flight in a Hollywood film and in Japanese cartoons featuring robots. “Up to now, it was just a dream, but with innovations in motors and batteries, it’s time for it to become real.”
Google, drone company Ehang and car manufacturer Geely in China, and Volkswagen AG of Germany have invested in flying car technology.
Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. said they had nothing to say about flying cars, but Toyota Motor Corp. recently invested $500 million in working with Uber on self-driving technology for the ride-hailing service. Toyota group companies have also invested 42.5 million yen ($375,000) in a Japanese startup, Cartivator, that is working on a flying car.
The hope is to fly up and light the torch at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but it’s unclear it will meet that goal: At a demonstration last year, the device crashed after it rose to slightly higher than eye level. A video of a more recent demonstration suggests it’s now flying more stably, though it’s being tested indoors, unmanned and chained so it won’t fly away.
There are plenty of skeptics.
Elon Musk, chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc., says even toy drones are noisy and blow a lot of air, which means anything that would be “1,000 times heavier” isn’t practical.
“If you want a flying car, just put wheels on a helicopter,” he said in a recent interview with podcast host and comedian Joe Rogan on YouTube. “Your neighbors are not going to be happy if you land a flying car in your backyard or on your rooftop.”
Though the Japanese government has resisted Uber’s efforts to offer ride-hailing services in Japan, limiting it to partnerships with taxi companies, it has eagerly embraced the US company’s work on EVtol machines.
Uber says it is considering Tokyo as its first launch city for affordable flights via its UberAir service. It says Los Angeles and Dallas, Texas, and locations in Australia, Brazil, France and India are other possible locations.
Unlike regular airplanes, with their aerodynamic design and two wings, Uber’s “Elevate” structures look like small jets with several propellers on top. The company says it plans flight demonstrations as soon as 2020 and a commercial service by 2023.
Uber’s vision calls for using heliports on rooftops, but new multi-floored construction similar to parking lots for cars will likely be needed to accommodate EVtol aircraft if the service takes off.
Unmanned drones are legal in Japan, the US and other countries, but there are restrictions on where they can be flown and requirements for getting approval in advance. In Japan, drone flyers can be licensed if they take classes. There is no requirement like drivers licenses for cars.
Flying passengers over populated areas would take a quantum leap in technology, overhauling aviation regulations and air traffic safety controls, along with major efforts both to ensure safety and convince people it’s safe.
Uber said at a recent presentation in Tokyo that it envisions a route between the city’s two international airports, among others.
“This is not a rich person’s toy. This is a mass market solution,” said Adam Warmoth, product manager at Uber Elevate.
Concepts for flying cars vary greatly. Some resemble vehicles with several propellers on top while others look more like a boat with a seat over the propellers.
Ebihara, the flying-car chief at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, says Japan is on board for “Blade Runner” style travel — despite its plentiful, efficient and well developed public transportation.
Japan’s auto and electronics industries have the technology and ability to produce super-light materials that could give the nation an edge in the flying car business, he said.
Just as the automobile vanquished horse-drawn carriages, moving short-distance transport into the air could in theory bring a sea change in how people live, Ebihara said, pointing to the sky outside the ministry building to stress how empty it was compared to the streets below.
Flying also has the allure of a bird’s eye view, the stuff of drone videos increasingly used in filmmaking, tourism promotion and journalism.
Atsushi Taguchi, a “drone grapher,” as specialists in drone video are called, expects test flights can be carried out even if flying cars won’t become a reality for years since the basic technology for stable flying already exists with recent advances in sensors, robotics and digital cameras.
A growing labor shortage in deliveries in Japan is adding to the pressures to realize such technology, though there are risks, said Taguchi, who teaches at the Tokyo film school Digital Hollywood.
The propellers on commercially sold drones today are dangerous, and some of his students have lost fingers with improper flying. The bigger propellers needed for vertical flight would increase the hazards and might need to be covered.
The devices might need parachutes to soften crash landings, or might have to explode into small bits to ensure pieces hitting the ground would be smaller.
“I think one of the biggest hurdles is safety,” said Taguchi. “And anything that flies will by definition crash.”
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Follow Yuri Kageyama on Twitter at https://twitter.com/yurikageyama
Her work can be found at https://www.apnews.com/search/yuri%20kageyama


If proven, Smollett allegations could be a ‘career killer’

Updated 22 February 2019
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If proven, Smollett allegations could be a ‘career killer’

  • “This could be a career-killer. We’ve seen this many times. Society has become more intolerant and unforgiving,” according to a PR expert
  • After a three-week investigation, Smollett was charged with staging the attack with help from two brothers he knew and allegedly paid for their services

LOS ANGELES: Jussie Smollett is enmeshed in weekly drama on the set of “Empire,” the Fox TV series that gave the actor a breakout role and the fame to advance his social activism.
But a scene that played out on a dark Chicago street in January has left Smollett facing felony charges and raised the possibility that “Empire” could mark the pinnacle of the 38-year-old’s career.
Smollett, who is black and gay, told police he was the victim of a hate crime committed by men who threw liquid in his face, yelled racist, anti-gay slurs and looped a noose around his neck. After a three-week investigation, Smollett was charged Wednesday with staging the attack with help from two brothers he knew and allegedly paid for their services.
Even in an industry in which bad or erratic behavior is expected, insiders and observers are stunned by what authorities allege was fakery intended in part to get Smollett publicity and a raise.
“This is incredible. No one does this,” said Garth Ancier, a veteran network executive and a co-founder of the Fox network. If more money was his goal, that’s what agents and negotiations are for, he said, calling the alleged hoax “beyond the pale.”
“It’s too bad that such a talented guy threw all that away,” Ancier said, adding he didn’t see how he could be kept on “Empire.”
Producers appeared to be doing that for now, with Smollett traveling directly after being released from jail on bond Thursday to the “Empire” set. There are two episodes left to make of the 18 airing this season, the fifth year for the series starring Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard as hip-hop moguls Cookie and Lucious Lyon.
Replacing Smollett at this point would be problematic. Writing his character, one of three Lyon sons, out of future seasons would be less so.
Smollett’s legal team released a statement late Thursday calling Chicago police’s version of events “an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system.
“Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing,” the statement said.
After Smollett was charged, TNT’s celebrity battle-rap series “Drop the Mic” pulled an upcoming episode with him “in the interest of not being exploitative of an incredibly sensitive situation,” the network said in a statement.
The Fox studio that makes “Empire” publicly stood behind Smollett when he first reported the attack and as skepticism about it arose. But it declined comment Thursday about what happens next as he fights charges of filing a false police report.
Experts in the field of crisis management were pessimistic. The online mockery Smollett is taking is unlikely to stop, and it could hinder any attempt to re-emerge, said Eric Dezenhall, CEO of the public relations firm Dezenhall Resources.
“The thing it’s really hard to come back from is ridicule,” Dezenhall said. “It can be easier to come back from something just bad. In our culture the whiff of something dangerous has a certain street cred. But here we’re talking about a combination of malevolence and ridiculousness.”
Eden Gillott, president of Gillott Communications, offered a similar take.
“This could be a career-killer. We’ve seen this many times. Society has become more intolerant and unforgiving,” said Gillott, citing instances ranging from Kevin Spacey’s firing from “House of Cards” for alleged sexual misconduct to Megyn Kelly’s “Today” exit after she defended blackface costumes.
What Smollett is alleged to have done isn’t analogous to either one — or to just about anything that’s happened with a celebrity or prominent person in recent memory or in news files.
There have been stunts, such as Joaquin Phoenix’s role in a so-called documentary, “I’m Still Here,” directed by actor Casey Affleck and supposedly about Phoenix’s career as a rapper in decline. The film’s release came with public apologies and lawsuits attached.
Others have exaggerated their exploits, such as TV journalist Brian Williams’ account of being in a helicopter hit by a rocket in the 2003 Iraq invasion or Hillary Clinton’s 2008 account of landing under sniper fire during a 1990s trip as first lady.
But Smollett, instead of creating an image-burnishing fiction, positioned himself as a victim and the deserving centerpiece for outrage directed at his attackers. He said those who questioned him made him feel “victimized.”
The allegation that Smollett did it for money could be seen as both a betrayal and baffling, given what he earns: more than $1.8 million for the current 18-episode season of “Empire,” according to a person familiar with the situation.
Dezenhall said it would be tough for Smollett, who proclaimed himself innocent of the charges through his lawyers, to explain himself publicly.
“All of us have said something stupid, put something in an email we shouldn’t have — we can understand that. But very few of us would say, ‘I would orchestrate something like that to advance my career.’ There’s a difference between a mistake and a scheme,” Dezenhall said. His advice to Smollett: “’Vanish for a few years, take up a cause, devote yourself to doing something good, and revisit it later.’“
Or search out people like Kandi Burruss, the singer-songwriter and reality star.
“I consider him a friend. I love him and regardless of if it’s true or not, I’m still going to be here for him. I hate the situation but I don’t hate the person,” she told The Associated Press Thursday at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon.