As competition in the global electric vehicle industry consolidates, many automotive firms and a host of new startups are eyeing what they see as the next frontier for innovation: the sky.
Although major regulatory hurdles and safety concerns remain, the past several years have seen undeniable progress in the quest to develop viable flying cars for the mass market. Several leading firms are based in China, such as AeroHT, the modern aviation affiliate of Guangzhou-based XPeng Motors.
Since its establishment in 2013, AeroHT has conducted upwards of 15,000 manned flights. On October 10, the XPeng X2 lifted off for a live demonstration at an event in Dubai, marking the model’s first global public flight. The firm describes the X2 as an all-electric “two-seater flying car,” that “will be suitable for future low-altitude flights and is perfect for short-distance city journeys such as sightseeing and medical transportation.”
The term “flying car” can conjure up a variety of images in the mind. In its most literal sense, one would think, it refers to a car capable of driving on both roads and navigating the sky. XPeng‘s X2 doesn’t have wheels, making it more like a huge passenger drone.
However, XPeng AeroHT is concurrently developing a more ambitious type of flying car – one with a driving mode that would purportedly make it “comparable with any conventional cars in terms of functionality and measurement.” On October 24, this sixth-generation electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) car model from AeroHT successfully carried out its maiden flight.
Among the most eye-catching features of this prototype is its retractable propellers that could, in theory, allow for a relatively seamless transition between air and road travel.
The firm recently released a video of its first flight. The vehicle’s maneuvering is slow and cautious, and the propeller contraption attached on top is a far cry from the sleek digital renderings, but that’s natural considering that XPeng is one of first firms in the world to actually get such a design concept up in the air.
One of XPeng AeroHT’s competitors from the Chinese market is EHang, a firm founded in 2014 for the specific purpose of developing aerial vehicles. EHang completed an IPO on the Nasdaq in late 2019, becoming the world’s first public company focusing exclusively on urban air transportation.
The firm told Pandaily that it “has completed more than 30,000 safe flight demonstrations around the world, with flight experience covering 12 countries on three continents,” giving it a significant head start over firms like XPeng.
EHang has progressed further than most competitors in obtaining regulatory certifications. It recently reported progress in gaining approval from China’s top aviation regulator of its EH216-S model. The company emphasized that “eVTOL aircraft based on autopilot have no precedent in terms of airworthiness,” adding that various countries are now creatively formulating new regulatory frameworks based on existing policy governing traditional aerial vehicles.
EHang is clear about its design concept. As an eVTOL-first company, its products are developed specifically for the aerial environment and are not compatible to existing road infrastructure. The EH216, one of its core products, features 16 propellers splayed in a circular arrangement below a two-seat cabin. EHang aircraft do not require anyone to drive, with fully-automatic navigation along preset flight routes.
To allay potential safety concerns, EHang has developed what it called a Fail-Safe System, which can “automatically assess the health of the aircraft in real time. In special circumstances, such as encountering a bird strike, the Fail-Safe System will automatically assess the degree of damage and determine whether it can continue to fly safely.”
While such developments stir the imagination of a Dune-esque future and skies abuzz with activity, when it comes to marketization under today’s conditions, firms will have their work cut out for them. Possible issues abound – potential noise pollution, risks of collision, and an utter lack of regulation, to name just a few.
China’s authorities have adopted a proactive approach to the nascent industry in a bid to drive domestic innovation. In August, the country’s top aviation regulator solicited public comments for a blueprint to achieve “urban short-distance, low-speed, light and small logistics distribution” through autonomous aerial vehicles by 2025. The same plan also forecasts “fast, medium- and small-sized” urban logistics operations by 2030 and “large-scale” operations by 2035.
As interest and investment in this exciting new field kicks up, analysts have stumbled upon a key question: Do we even need flying cars?
Some selling points are irrefutable, such as their speed and ability to alleviate traffic and parking needs on the ground in urban settings. But problems such as safety – both for vehicles in flight and pedestrians on the ground – and incessant propeller noise if eVTOL cars ever take hold on a societal scale discourage some industry actors.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk expressed such concerns in a 2015 interview, although a frenzy of speculation has since proliferated on the question of whether the world’s leading EV firm will attempt to enter the burgeoning sector itself.
A 2019 study by researchers at the University of Michigan looked into the potential for eVTOL vehicles to assist efforts to make transport greener, offering the lukewarm prediction that they could eventually play a “niche role in sustainable mobility.” A key finding was that eVTOL vehicles actually require higher greenhouse gas emissions than average ground-based vehicles for short trips, which were classified as journeys of 35 km or below.
Although challenges may seem daunting, the young industry is booming as firms vie for position. McKinsey estimates that total annual investment in the eVTOL industry broke $2.5 billion in September of this year.
While companies and policymakers look to the mid-2020s as a key inflection point for the industry’s development, it’s still unclear how long the world needs to wait before flying cars can become the new normal in urban transportation. But with its ambitious tech startups and aggressive regulatory approach, there’s a good chance that Chinese consumers will experience that future first.