Uber has shaken up the taxi industry and is trying to put driverless cars on our roads. Now the company aims to have flying ride-sharing vehicles in our skies by 2020. The Conversation

Uber is not alone in working towards flying cars. But is this realistic, or just marketing hype?

To many of us, the concept of flying cars is synonymous with the future, just like silver jumpsuits and gourmet food in the form of a pill. Those dreams have not yet materialised so what about flying cars?

How is this a car?

The classic idea of a flying car was just that: a car that could somehow fly.

Filmed in the 1940s in Italy, a propeller driven automobile that flies makes its first test flight.

In fiction, the author Ian Fleming was a fan of flying cars, writing his novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang around the concept in 1963. He also included a flying car in his James Bond novel (1964) and subsequent film, The Man with The Golden Gun. These concepts are based on a car with wheels that can drive on the road but is also capable of flying when required.

Science fiction writers and directors have often dispensed with the need to have future vehicles ever drive on the road. Instead, the “cars” are simply small aircraft such as the one Anakin Skywalker used in the Star Wars film Attack of the Clones.

The recent flying car announcements vary in type from single-seat, multi-copter drone-type aircraft, to road-style cars that turn into light aircraft and small flying boats that hover above the water.

It would appear that almost any small flying vehicle capable of transporting a person is now referred to as a flying car. But clearly they are really just a kind of small aircraft.

How safe?

Any potential passenger will want to know: “How safe is this contraption?”

The likely answer right now is “not very safe”, as with all early-stage technology. Companies are working feverishly to make their aircraft “safe enough” in the hope of convincing regulators and governments that the vehicles can be entrusted with human lives.

But there are incredible safety challenges. One of the biggest is what to do when things go badly wrong.

With a normal car, you can often just slow to a halt and stop. But a flying car might fall out of the sky, killing not only its occupants but potentially bystanders too.

Ehang’s flying taxi for Dubai.

The Chinese company Ehang is proposing to equip its flying car service in Dubai with a parachute. This service will apparently take a single occupant from the roof of one Dubai skyscraper to the roof of another.

Should the parachute deploy, it is not clear whether the vehicle will have any way to control where it lands, or how safely.