This flying car prototype in China may get off the ground before the Japanese version. Photo: AFP
This flying car prototype in China may get off the ground before the Japanese version. Photo: AFP

Like the reluctant narrator of a circuitous science fiction tale, it fell to a trade ministry official, Shinji Tokumasu, to explain what Japan is up to with its flying car project.

Or, more to the point – to keep us in suspense.

Questions have been flying since an odd narrative emerged last week from Japan’s trade ministry: Tokyo is leading a consortium of 21 businesses and organizations to bring Isaac Asimov’s literary visions to fruition. What better place than Japan, whose influence coursed through the pages of Philip K Dick and the Blade Runner films, with their bevy of airborne autos?

Tokumasu did not offer many answers on Wednesday. All he did, following the first meeting of consortium members, was to offer a mission statement of sorts. The goal, the trade official said, is “to cultivate a new industry and make it profitable in the world market.”

Flying cars, he declared, “… are expected to solve issues of transportation in remote islands or mountainous areas, or rescue operations and goods transport in a disaster.”

It was a letdown for car and aviation nuts looking for details, data, schematics – anything to quench the thirst for proof that the delicious idea of cars that fly was not a public-relations stunt for the Olympics.

The most immediate goal, Tokumasu noted, was to ready a manned prototype by late 2019 and have a working specimen to open the Tokyo Olympics in August 2020.

But in saying very little on Wednesday night, Tokyo actually said much.

Japan’s FOMO syndrome

For one thing, the budgets being bandied about suggest this is not a serious aspiration. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry hopes to request just over $40 million in Tokyo’s fiscal-year 2019 budget to finance the required technology.

Tesla’s Elon Musk, who also is jetting onto the flying-car scene, makes more than that in a year. In other words, if Tokyo is serious about leading this space, it needs to add a couple of zeroes.

What’s really going on here? Call it Japan’s FOMO moment.

This fear-of-missing-out dynamic has the Bank of Japan channeling Peter Pan, the boy who can fly, in its pitch to end deflation. So why wouldn’t the trade ministry turn to a flight of fancy of another kind to reanimate its innovative spirit?

It’s actually fine that Wednesday’s maiden meeting was more get-to-know-you photo op than negotiation. Because – at the risk of spoiling the fun – it must be said: Japan’s readiness to anchor and steer this flying-car project is fanciful to an extreme. Nor is this endeavor about to launch Japan’s aging economy back into orbit.

But first, credit where it is due. Let’s marvel at Tokyo’s audacity. Just as in the crypto-currency space, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is displaying impressive moxie here.

Late last year, Japan set out to position Tokyo as a global, if unlikely, hub for Bitcoin trading, initial coin offerings and blockchain startups. A paradoxical enterprise for a risk-adverse, bureaucratic and rapidly-aging economy overseen by a 77-year-old finance minister.

The BOJ’s efforts to sprinkle a little Peter Pan magic on the nation’s stubborn deflationary mindset, literally, did not travel well. Now, Governor Haruhiko Kuroda can’t decide whether to believe in Bitcoin or declare it a Ponzi scheme.

These same tensions make Tokyo a less-than-ideal locale to base car companies’ reach for the heavens.

A panacea for a grounded auto sector?

Granted, Economy Minister Hiroshige Seko is overseeing exactly the dream team you’d want to get the rubber, well, off the road. This consortium includes Toyota-based startup Cartivator, Uber, Boeing, Airbus, NEC, ANA, Japan Airlines and Yamato Holdings, which runs Japan’s vast door-to-door delivery system.

But let us be clear: Tokyo’s FOMO complex is driving this project. There’s no doubt Japan Inc regrets moving glacially to get in on electric vehicles, self-driving cars and myriad other industries of tomorrow.

Just this week, for example, Toyota invested more than $500 million in Uber, in an effort to catch up with General Motors, Alphabet’s Waymo and others. Toyota is also pouring cash into Grab – Southeast Asia’s ride-hailing app – suggesting that the 81-year-old company is trying to pull a SoftBank.

Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank is positioning itself more as giant venture capital firm than a mobile network company by investing big in futuristic transport.

From Wednesday’s proceedings, it seems clear that Toyota’s Cartivator aims to perfect a “SkyDrive” manned vehicle that’s 2.9 meters long and powered by four sets of propellers.

It’s a group effort, of course. Uber, for example, plans to plow nearly $24 million into a new Paris facility to accelerate flying-car innovation. Airbus and Boeing are investing in advancements in take-off and vertical landing techniques.

Soaring into a sky clouded with regulation

But technology isn’t the problem. It’s navigating what’s sure to be an almost unprecedented labyrinth of regulatory questions: safety, insurance, liability, zoning, training requirements, etc.

If you think drones and self-driving vehicles are hitting procedural speed-bumps, just imagine how police and national-security officials could get in Tokyo’s way. Risks posed by computer hacking are likely to outpace progress made on rules and best practices.

Given Japan’s notorious bureaucracy and obsession with consensus, it hardly seems an ideal showrunner. Abe’s government, remember, still can’t find a way to make the 2020 games smoking-free. It’s but a microcosm of how old-economy habits get in the way of Tokyo’s tomorrow.

And while Japan’s ingrained preference for caution stymies progress, might Tesla and other companies looking to revolutionize transport get there first? Volkswagen, Daimler, China’s Geely and Larry Page of Google fame are all keen on morphing science fiction into science fact.

Each might have more luck getting their dreams aloft than Abe’s government. So, applaud Tokyo’s passion for flying cars. Just know that a government as risk-averse as Japan’s is poorly suited to out-innovate Silicon Valley or bring sci-fi dreams to life.