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Toyota decides flying cars aren't so crazy after all

Automaker agrees to fund young employees' extracurricular project

A computer graphic of the Cartivator project's flying car (Image courtesy of Cartivator)

TOKYO -- Toyota Motor has decided to finance a flying car project that some of its young employees have been voluntarily working on.

Flying cars are drawing a lot of attention these days, with U.S. startups and aircraft makers increasingly deciding to enter the sector. Amid heated competition to develop next-generation mobility, flight is rapidly emerging as a promising answer.

The project is led by a group called Cartivator. It all started in 2012 when project leader Tsubasa Nakamura won a business contest -- not an internal one. Its 30-odd members donate their free time. They have also received some outside help -- from Masafumi Miwa, a drone expert and associate professor of mechanical engineering at Tokushima University, and Taizo Son, founder of GungHo Online Entertainment, a Japanese online video game developer.

Toyota and its group companies have agreed, in principle, to provide some 40 million yen ($352,982) to Cartivator, which has so far relied on online crowdfunding and other means for financing.

Members of the flying car project from Toyota Motor and others work on a prototype at a closed elementary school in Aichi Prefecture, central Japan. (Photo by Masayuki Kozono)

The group plans to develop a prototype for a manned test flight by the end of 2018. To that end, it will work to develop technology to control propellers to stabilize the vehicle. The group hopes to commercialize a flying car in 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics.

Cars are more convenient than ever. But they still pollute, and traffic congestion is quite fierce in many cities. Solutions are arriving in the shape of electric and fuel cell vehicles as well as self-driving cars.

But those drivers stuck in traffic, well, their imaginations have seized on a fundamentally new solution to their jam.

If roads are no longer needed, congestion would disappear. Flying cars that could take off vertically would dramatically change the flow of people and traffic.

We are not talking pie in the sky here. Kitty Hawk, a U.S. startup backed by Larry Page, co-founder of Google, hopes to commercialize the Flyer. Airbus, the European aircraft maker, has said it plans to begin test flights of a flying car this year. Uber Technologies, which has already given us a new way to get around with its ride-hailing app, in April announced plans to launch flying taxi services.

Before drivers become flyers, however, many hurdles have to be cleared. Safety issues will have to be addressed. New laws, a licensing system and traffic rules will have to be adopted. But as more companies like Toyota give momentum to the flying car, proper legal frameworks can be expected to follow.

It has not been easy for the Cartivator project to get this far. Toyota's brass had been reluctant to give it any meaningful backing. But the automaker has been gradually opening itself to new ideas. In November 2015, it decided to set up a fund to invest in technology startups. Last year, it established a research and development center in the U.S. dedicated to artificial intelligence, welcoming an outside expert. On Wednesday, it announced a plan to invest a near record 1.05 trillion yen in research and development in the current fiscal year, through next March.

Flying cars? There are crazier ideas. Anyway, "future cars may look totally different from today's cars," a Toyota executive said.

Toyota took the plunge, a person familiar with the matter said, because Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada decided "things will not progress if you wait and provide money only when the technology is ready."

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