John Thornhill Financial Times
Flying cars finally prepare for take-off
April 15, 2021
  • Share
  • Combine some neat technological advances, frothy capital markets and a few locked-down imaginations dreaming of escape and what do you get? Flying cars. Anyone who has ever watched The Jetsons or Blade Runner will be familiar with the concept. Flying cars are as much a part of our imaginary future as talking robots or interplanetary travel. But what has long been stuck in the realm of science fiction is fast approaching reality. Investors are pouring money into urban air mobility (UAM) companies in the expectation that they will be ferrying passengers around cities by the middle of this decade. Last month, Lilium, the German flying taxi start-up, announced it was raising $830m at a valuation of $3.3bn via a reverse merger in New York with a special purpose acquisition company. Lilium plans to fly from a network of vertiports around Orlando, Florida, by 2024 and aims to build 10 more across Europe. Earlier in the year, Joby Aviation, a US flying taxi start-up backed by Uber and Toyota, also raised money via a Spac at a valuation of $6.6bn, while its rival Archer merged with another blank cheque company at $3.8bn. Such companies appear ideal candidates for speculative Spac investments: exciting futuristic projects that still lack a fully workable product or a proven business model.  However, even older, more staid auto companies, such as General Motors, are joining the game. In January, Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive, presented the concept of a “flying Cadillac” — a vertical take-off and landing drone — that could hop between city rooftops. The company said the project gave a “glimpse of what autonomy and Cadillac luxury might look like in the not-too-distant future”. To be widely adopted, flying cars will have to move from being technologically feasible to commercially viable to socially acceptable. Given predictable public hostility to skies teeming with low-flying metal cans, whether they ever reach that final destination is an open question. But there is no doubt that the technology is evolving fast. A recent Morgan Stanley report on the urban air mobility market argued that several breakthroughs had accelerated the future, meaning that investors should be paying attention to the sector today.  Heavy investments in battery technology had transformed power-to-weight ratios, promising cheaper cost, greater range and lower noise. Autonomous driving systems developed for terrestrial use could work well in less congested skies. And the rollout of 5G networks and low earth orbit satellite constellations also promised safer and more reliable communications with airborne vehicles. While acknowledging it would take decades for the urban air mobility economy fully to unfold, the bank’s analysts said their future “simulations” suggested that air vehicles might one day travel more miles and sell more units than traditional cars. Even though flying cars may soon be operational, they would still appear to lack a compelling commercial case when compared with helicopters. Air taxi enthusiasts say that whereas one mile in a traditional car can only take you a fixed route from A to B, one mile in a flying car can take you anywhere. But that is not strictly true. Flying cars, like helicopters, will be closely regulated and will have to depend on secure ground infrastructure for take-off and landing. Recommended FT News Briefing podcast10 min listen Markets rally on strong economic data, investors react to Biden’s sanctions on Russia Big money is only now beginning to flow into urban air hubs to manage flying taxis and delivery drones. China appears to be leading the way, but an experimental urban air hub in Coventry in the UK is also expected to open later this year. As is the case with other new technologies, one of the biggest risks may come from premature deployment and a public backlash. A report published in February by Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch heavily criticised an out-of-control unmanned aircraft prototype that had entered controlled airspace near Gatwick airport in July 2019, endangering flights.  But flying car companies are well aware of the safety risks and are determined to meet the challenge. As far back as 1926, Henry Ford unveiled a “sky flivver”, a 350lb single seat aeroplane-car. The flivver failed to enter production following a fatal test flight. But Ford’s dream never faded. A few years before his death in 1947, he was still saying: “Mark my word: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.” One day soon, perhaps a century after he unveiled his flivver prototype, Ford’s ghost may finally have the last smile.