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Imagination + a Little Movie Magic = a Volkswagen Hover Car Silently Navigating City Streets [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Volkswagen,hover car,magneticA year ago, Volkswagen in China launched a marketing campaign called The People’s Car Project (PCP), which invited Chinese customers to submit ideas for cars of the future. Participants were able to tinker with designs on a Web site that Volkswagen set up for that purpose, or they could upload their own designs. Wang Jia, a student and resident of Chengdu in the country’s Sichuan province, chose the latter, envisioning a two-person environmentally-friendly hover car.

Jia sent sketches of a levitating car that could be maneuvered easily in a downtown setting, says Simon Loasby, head of design at Volkswagen Group China. The VW team rounded out the design. “We put a concept together, including a video depicting how it would function,” he adds. “It was the ultimate in dreaming because a full-scale version of the car doesn’t exist.”

The imaginary car stays aloft with the aid of magnetic levitation, much the way some maglev trains travel along special rails using electromagnetic suspension. (Other maglev trains use electromagnetic forces for propulsion without actually lifting the train off the ground.) The Shanghai Maglev Train has been ferrying passengers since 2004 on a 30-kilometer line between Pudong International Airport and the city’s outskirts at speeds of up to 430 kilometers per hour. Magnets on board and in the track lift the train between eight and 12 millimeters, depending on how much electrical current is used.

What keeps maglev vehicles from gaining widespread use is the need to set up an infrastructure of electromagnetic rails and roads. In their video, Volkswagen designers envision a scenario where magnetic iron rock or ore beneath Chengdu help create the car’s levitation; alternatively, the minerals could be mined and mixed in with the tarmac. “We built a one-quarter scale model of the car and used a bit of creative filmmaking to show how it would work,” Loasby says. As portrayed in the video (see below), the vehicle would be about two meters in diameter and about 1.5 meters wide.

In the video, Jia’s parents take the wheel-shaped hover car out for a spin through Chengdu. The narrator points out a number of the imaginary car’s features, including a joystick controller, auto-pilot, and a collision-avoidance  sensor. To add a bit of realism in one scene, a discarded can in the roadway rolls away from the car as it passes by.Volkswagen magnetic levitation hover car

Of course, for VW’s hover car to work in practice, it would have to cost less to run than an ordinary car, and experts question whether that is possible in the foreseeable future. “You could argue that, because there’s less friction, the hover car would be more efficient than fuel-powered vehicles with tires, brakes and other mechanism,” says José Holguín-Veras, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic University. “I’m OK with that, but you’re still going to need a rechargeable battery or some form of energy to power this vehicle, and the initial investment in a maglev infrastructure for the car would be substantial.” The only vehicles that would benefit from such an infrastructure investment would be the hover cars themselves—wheeled vehicles running on combustion engines or batteries would still need well-maintained roads.

As imaginative as the VW hover car is, Holguín-Veras says, mass transit is still the best option for urban populations in the future as city populations swell and traffic congestion grows.

Perhaps the solution, then, isn’t cars propelled along by electromagnetic energy but rather city buses that can make use of this technology. These could accommodate more passengers while providing greater coverage than maglev trains confined to specific guideways. Still, after seeing the video VW put together, who wouldn’t want to take Jia’s hover car for a spin?

Images and video courtesy of VW

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. promytius 10:37 am 06/21/2012

    I sure hope Volkswagen paid you a LOT of money for this
    Ah, the science of deceit…

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  2. 2. grandpa 12:14 pm 06/21/2012

    I think it’s well done and imaginative….some people out there actually believe in an energetic exciting future, unlike another country’s citizens who seem enveloped in fear and angry pessimism.

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  3. 3. huler 12:30 pm 06/21/2012

    I am with @grandpa. this is hopeful and exciting. @promytius, where’s the deceit? This is brainstorming mixed with crowd sourcing mixed with just cool. Where’s the lose in that?

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  4. 4. alan6302 1:47 pm 06/21/2012

    future cars will float with sound waves.

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  5. 5. r0b3m4n 6:34 pm 06/21/2012

    I agree with promytius. No new technology here, seems mostly an ad.

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  6. 6. Sandhir 12:24 am 06/22/2012

    Calling this car as a hover car is a misnomer. Hovercrafts float on a cushion of air. Concept car is mgnetically levitated. A few millimetres levitation is enough to take care of friction. The greater the lift, stronger the magnetic field required for levitation and hence energy required. Concept of floating 400 mm above surface itself is flawed though a good gimmick for commercial purposes.

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  7. 7. jimmy boy 4:49 am 06/22/2012

    Were the h— is the flying cars we were told would we would have by now? I WANT MY FLYING CAR, not a hover car!

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  8. 8. rtinfow 10:22 am 06/23/2012

    How could anyone take this literally, as the promotion of a new technology? It’s a whimsical and affectionate paean to the creativity of a young woman. Beautiful and inspiring little piece of sponsored art.

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  9. 9. northamerican 12:15 am 06/24/2012

    Flying car? I like the future as depicted in that startrek episode where everyone is young and healthy, doing their errands by jogging on small paths – no cars necessary.

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  10. 10. ge556 4:07 pm 06/26/2012

    “To add a bit of realism in one scene, a discarded can in the roadway rolls away from the car as it passes by.”
    I don’t think so. The only object that would be repelled are those with a strong magnetic field, held firmly in a repelling position. If not held firmly, it would flip around and stick to the car.

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  11. 11. engineeron 5:46 pm 06/27/2012

    Magnetic fields are routinely used to “kick” aluminum cans and other non-ferrous materials out of single-stream recycling systems. Rapidly changing fields (could be due to changing current in a coil, or by moving the magnet or the material to be sorted, or a combination) induce a current in the conductive material, which sets up its own magnetic field, and they oppose, to over-simplify. See, for example.

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