Flying cars are arriving along two very different tracks

Ken-Ichi Hino

Monday (February 13) was a big day in the world of personal aerial transportation, with two major announcements:

  • The United Arab Emirates’ Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) announced that Chinese UAV company EHang will begin providing autonomous aerial transportation in Dubai this summer.
  • Dutch company PAL-V announced that its Liberty, the world’s first commercial flying car, is now on sale, with first deliveries expected by the end of 2018.

While both announcements have captured imaginations by featuring “flying car” taglines, the vastly different approaches taken by the two companies demonstrate the nascence of the market and all of the unknowns that have yet to be solved when it comes to moving people through the air in new ways.

The first obvious difference is the vehicles themselves:

      EHang 184      PAL-V Liberty

The EHang 184 (which stands for one passenger, eight propellers, four arms) is a drone. It is as capable of moving on land as a fish – it has no wheels and cannot be driven, meaning it fails the “car” part of “flying car.” However, the benefit is that it requires no runway to land, enabling it to reach denser urban environments. The EHang is also all-electric, but range limitations will certainly come into play as the 184 is rated for 23-minute flight times within about a 10-mile range.

The PAL-V Liberty, on the other hand, is absolutely a car, even if it has one fewer wheel than most others. The specifications list 0-60 speed (<9 seconds), fuel economy (31 mpg), and engine power (100 hp). This is a “roadable aircraft,” in certification-speak, and requires over 1,000 feet of take-off distance. The gas-powered engine does not have the range problems the 184 does, with a range of 248 flying miles (with at least 62 miles of driving left in reserve) and a cruising speed of 87 mph.

The strategies are entirely different as well, as would be appropriate for products as different as the EHang and the Liberty. To draw two overly simple comparisons, EHang is taking an Uber-like approach by offering aerial transportation as a service, with individuals electronically picking from a series of pre-set destinations, then sitting back until they get there. This enables any individual to fly, with the vehicle controlled autonomously and monitored from central station.

PAL-V, on the other hand, is taking a page out of the Tesla playbook, going straight to the high-end market with a price of $399,000 (not that the EHang 184 is cheap at $200,000). The Liberty requires a pilot’s license to fly, albeit the easier “sport” license, but the Liberty’s marketing touts the “fun” and “excitement” of the flying experience and the novelty and innovation of the entire vehicle as its selling points.

These differences illustrate just some of the ways in which technological and operational approaches could vary as companies address how to utilize lower altitudes for personal transportation. Significant hurdles remain, both from technological (range and speed for all-electric; vertical takeoff/landing capabilities for gas-powered) and regulatory perspectives. However, with certified products now on the market, big names and deep pockets such as Uber, Airbus, and Larry Page involved, and companies such as Terrafugia and AeroMobil getting past prototyping stages, the speed of technological improvement is likely to increase. This may kick off the virtuous cycle of technology/regulation/investment maturation, when proof of technological capabilities increases pressure on regulators to provide clear governing rules, which then increases investor confidence in the sector, enabling increased capital flows, whereby enabling more technological innovation. The exact paths and markets that will develop will likely differ across geographies, but there are many indications that globally, we are getting closer and closer to “flying cars” being a reality.

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