“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
There’s no real proof that Henry Ford ever said such a thing, but his adage comes to mind for the future of flying cars, which is closer to reality than many of us might think.
Chinese carmaker Geely is certainly confident about the prospects, after taking control of Terrafugia, a Boston-based company that has already produced prototypes for ‘roadable aircraft’.
Geely has made a habit of investing across the automotive sector, taking control of the manufacturer of London’s iconic black cabs and buying international brands like Sweden’s Volvo (see WiC310) and Malaysia’s Proton (see WiC368).
Nor is there much chance that Li Shufu, the company’s founder, is intimidated by the technological challenges of constructing flying cars. After all, this is a man who got into the auto industry with the breezy declaration that a car was merely four wheels on a sofa.
Flying cars are seen as one of the solutions to the traffic gridlock besetting many of the world’s cities, following technical advances in lightweight materials, battery composition and steering systems.
Geely says it will deliver its first model within two years – a plug-in hybrid with a range of up to 800 kilometres that is expected to cost more than $250,000 and will have a 2-seater cabin with folding wings, so that it can fit inside a typical car lane.
It then plans to launch the world’s first vertical take-off and landing aircraft, or VTOL, by 2023.
Geely’s subsidiary Volvo has also been working closely with Uber on a project to test driverless cars in their more typical environment (i.e. on the streets) for more than a year and earlier this week it trumpeted another groundbreaking deal in which the two firms will launch a fuller fleet of unmanned vehicles to be purchased by Uber from 2019 onwards.
If all 24,000 of the sports utility vehicles outlined in the announcement are delivered, it would be Volvo’s largest order by some distance. Uber will provide the sensors and software that power the self-driving systems in the cars, which would be available to order through the company’s app. The deal seems to mark a new departure for the ride-sharing firm, which is moving away from its asset-light business model with the commitment to spend as much as $1 billion on the new fleet.
News of Geely’s takeover of Terrafugia elicited a cautious response in the Chinese press, however, including a mention from the National Business Daily that the Boston firm had missed previous deadlines on getting its fleet into production.
The newspaper liked the idea of VTOL and the potential speeds of 320km/h. But it wondered whether the concept could ever catch on in China’s congested airspace, where lengthy delays are already a source of frustration for airline passengers.
Apart from the military’s reluctance to cede more of the skies to civilian traffic, the debate about drone activity has also been fierce, and flying cars could run into similar roadblocks if the idea ever takes off.
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