Cars and Trucks

‘Flying cars’ still aren’t ready for takeoff, but automakers keep climbing aboard

Flying cars (and jetpacks) have fascinated the public and press for decades and are a surefire way to get crowds and coverage at an event. At this month’s virtual CES, GM scored big buzz (and a significant stock-price bounce) from its numerous announcements, one of which was unveiling a flying-car concept that carries Cadillac styling cues.

Like most modern so-called “flying cars,” GM’s concept isn’t really designed for roads or being driven at all, but is an autonomous, single-seat, electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicle (eVTOL). Dubbed Vertile and just a rendering at this point, GM says it will be powered by a 90-kWh battery and is meant for short-distance travel, reaching a torpid top speed of 56 mph.

Stellantis (née FCA) also jumped on the flying-car bandwagon at CES by announcing a partnership with California-based Archer Aviation to launch what Archer calls “the world’s first all-electric airline.” But the Stellantis-Archer eVTOL is designed for shuttling passengers short distances between, say, a city center and outlying airports, not long distances.

These two companies join a fledgling flock of personal-aircraft concepts and partnerships among major automakers. Last year Hyundai displayed in its CES booth an eVTOL designed for four passengers and a pilot, while Toyota announced a nearly $400 million investment in eVTOL piloted air-taxi startup Joby Aviation.

 

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At the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show a few months earlier Mercedes-Benz, trotted out an air taxi developed by its partner, the German company Volocopter, and at the 2018 Geneva Motor Show, Audi teamed up with Airbus and Italdesign to display an electric and autonomous quadcopter/city car combo. Dubbed the Pop.Up Next, if the car part gets stuck in traffic, the Airbus-developed drone can be summoned via an app to lift the passenger compartment pod, leaving the self-driving chassis and rush hour behind.

GM VP of Global Design Michael Simcoe said during a CES video presentation the company’s Vertile “meets you on the roof and drops you at the Vertiport closest to your destination. As a passenger,” he added, “it represents personal space and a panoramic view of the world passing beneath you.”

Sure, sounds cool. But the dream of personal vehicles taking to the skies precedes passenger cars as we know them – back to when the Henson Aerial Steam Carriage was patented in 1841. And ever since then, we’ve been waiting for flying cars.

The auto industry’s interest in flying vehicles as part of their mobility and logistics portfolios comes at a time when tech giants and others are curtailing their own ambitious personal-aviation plans. Uber announced at the end of 2020 that Joby Aviation was acquiring its Uber Elevate division – only weeks before the ride-hailing company jettisoned its autonomous-vehicle division to help stem its endless river of red ink.

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Kitty Hawk, the flying-car startup launched in 2010 by Google cofounder Larry Page and self-driving car guru Sebastian Thrun, announced this summer the company was grounding its Flyer, an ultralight, single-seat, pontoon aircraft designed for recreational use over water rather than soaring over gridlocked urban traffic. Kitty Hawk, however, is moving ahead with development of Heaviside, a larger single-seat eVTOL with a range of about 100 miles for short city-to-city flights.

But while deep-pocket tech titans can pour time and money into pet projects, it’s more difficult for shareholder-beholden automakers to sink resources into potential pie-in-the-sky flying-car concepts. After a little more than a year, for example, Audi suspended work on its Pop.Up air taxi and hit pause on its partnership with Airbus.

And while automakers are used to dealing with the onerous regulation that it takes to manufacturer and maintain cars, taking to the skies presents a whole new level of rules. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency both are moving slowly on regulation that will open the skies to nouveau personal aircraft, with the pace of technology outpacing policymaking.

Former deputy administrator of the FAA and current global head of policy for Hyundai Urban Air Mobility division Mike Whitaker told eVTOL.com he recognizes both “the cautious approach of the FAA as well as the frustration of the OEMs that want clarity and speed to certification.”

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Whitaker added, “At the end of the day, neither the regulations nor the technology is quite ready for prime time, and industry and the FAA will need to continue working together to bring this technology and the supporting ecosystem online as fast as can safely be achieved.”

So while Simcoe said in GM’s virtual CES presentation that the Vertile is “a glimpse of what autonomy and Cadillac luxury might look like in the not-too-distant future” – and given we’ve been waiting almost 200 years since the introduction of the Henson Aerial Steam Carriage to see flying cars achieve liftoff in large numbers – don’t hold your breath. Or sell your car just yet.


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