Entrepreneur Elon Musk recently stated he intends to make the next incarnation of the Tesla car capable of hovering. His suggestion in a recent podcast that future versions of the Tesla Roadster may be capable of levitating 1m off the ground, using thrusters, is sure to cause concern to regulators, who would have to react to such an innovation.
In China too, electric cars seem increasingly hungry to take flight, with start-ups such as Xpeng late last year unveiling the first in a series of electric flying vehicles, resembling something more like personal helicopters than traditional road vehicles.
The prospect of such a futuristic Chinese market is being taken ever more seriously. Alibaba has backed Xpeng and flying car technologies as part of its long-term growth strategies, expecting significant advances and integration in society to take place over the coming years.
Likewise, autonomous flying taxi start-up Ehang, which hopes to launch its hail and fly service in Guangzhou, has in recent years received approval from regulators and aviation bodies, and even filed for a $100 million initial public offering (IPO) on the US NASDAQ market.
The future feasibility of what were once far-fetched ideas is hinted at by the vast number of sectors taking an interest in flying cars. Aerospace firms, drone manufacturers, ride hailing companies and conventional car companies like Tesla are all in on the race.
Overwhelming technical and regulatory obstacles stand in their way, however, but the sheer pressure of talent and determination in this race suggests that eventually something viable may emerge.
The number one issue threatening this fledgling industry, however, is safety.
One high-profile crash or fatality could completely destroy investor confidence in start-ups such as Ehang or XPeng. Overcoming this inherent risk will be difficult, especially when it comes to developing Autonomous Aerial Vehicles (AAVs). Deaths during experimental operations regarding just conventional land-based autonomous cars demonstrate that self-navigating technology is still in its infancy.
The successful negligent homicide prosecution of human operators responsible for the death of Elaine Herzberg in 2018, in Uber’s botched self-driving vehicle operation, may cause many to feel that it is not worth putting their livelihoods on the line for volatile technologies which leave them legally culpable, further taking steam out of research efforts.
Vital operation systems such as autopilot, flight control and communications all need to be as reliable as possible, especially when pushed to the cutting edge of what is currently possible. This, then, may partly boil down to how well accustomed users are to handling such technology.
We are all aware of how confidently young adults and teenagers know their way around smartphones compared to older people, sluggishly typing on a touch screen, one index finger at a time. Likewise, even autopilot AAVs may require some form of driver interaction, and when you are potentially hundreds of metres up in the air, this could be an issue for technophobes.
Companies such as EHang are realistic about such hurdles, especially those in a regulatory context. A tightening of restrictions, especially in overpopulated areas, is a further challenge to AAV products. If authority control becomes too interfering and complex for industry conditions, this might affect the future prospects for such ambitious companies still in their infancy.
If any country can meet these challenges, however, it is China. Recognised internationally as having potential for the AAV market, many are seriously considering that China will be the first market to embrace the flying car.
In a recent study, Volkswagen, another company with interest in China’s aerial potential, rated the country as having much potential to adopt the infrastructure to accommodate what they call cars with “vertical mobility”.
Mass production of flying vehicles would also have to take into account environmental concerns. One can only imagine what issues around carbon footprints personal flying vehicles might have, with energy consumption and pollution emissions in mind. Partnering with the right aerospace company with existing advanced battery technologies could accelerate the roll out of safe and viable AAVs.
The prospect of flying cars in China is moving ever closer to becoming a reality. The first company to make a move domestically, EHang, has already benefited from large government support, and has, so far, got over regulatory hurdles smoothly.
Hopes its two-seater aircraft, the EH216, will be approved by China’s civil aviation authority later this year would demonstrate the domestic industry’s progress. Before long, our city skylines could start to look very different indeed.
Barry He is a London-based columnist for China Daily.
CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK