APEX Insight: The race for a viable flying car is heating up. Can a team of Japanese engineers cross the finish line in time to get a working prototype off the ground at the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics?

Toyota has partnered with a Japanese volunteer group called Cartivator to develop a flying car, and on a rather tight timetable to boot. Similar to the airline industry incubator model,  Toyota also partners with startups to explore emerging technologies. In this case, the auto giant invested over $350,000 to the nonprofit organization, which is developing a flying car called Skydrive. Working out of an old elementary school on weekends, the Cartivator team holds down day jobs in the aviation and auto industries, as well as in the startup world – and all that experience is being brought to the task at hand.

The goal is to build a passenger-ready vehicle by 2019, and stage the most public of public demonstrations in 2020: use the Skydrive to light the Olympic cauldron in Tokyo. (This may remind some readers of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where a man wearing a jetpack lit the cauldron and stoked the public’s hunger for personal flying machines.)

“By 2050 we aim to create a world where anyone can fly in the sky anytime and anywhere.” – Cartivator

At just under 10 feet long, Cartivator reckons Skydrive will be the world’s smallest – even smaller than Airbus’ Vahana, which is also tipped for a 2020 demonstration. The firm imagines Skydrive as an infrastructure-free mode of transportation, accessible to all through a ride-share model, and able to take off and land anywhere.”By 2050 we aim to create a world where anyone can fly in the sky anytime and anywhere,” said Cartivator. “To realize our vision, a compact flying car is necessary with a vertical takeoff and landing technology, which do not need roads and runways to lift off.”

A Rising Tide Lifts All… Planes

While we won’t see flying cars in the driveways of even the wealthiest neighborhoods anytime soon, developing these futuristic vehicles is a worthy endeavor nonetheless, due to the aeronautic breakthroughs achieved along the way. These breakthroughs can scale upward, with new materials and production methods making their way into commercial airline cabins.

Looking at Skydrive’s design, it’s clear how drone technology is influencing passenger aircraft technology. And the low weight and high efficiency required for small-scale flight can some day trigger breakthroughs for tomorrow’s passenger jets, for which every ounce counts. Reaching those breakthroughs takes lots of trial and error, which is where the fail-fast ethos of a startup becomes the perfect complement to a bigger company.

Skydrive’s initial test flight only lasted a few seconds at a few feet of altitude, which doesn’t exactly evoke images of Harrison Ford’s spinner from Blade Runner, but it’s still early days.