Buckle up, flying cars are poised to take off in China

|     Karl Wilson     |

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) – The stuff of science fiction is close to becoming reality.

Back in February, drone manufacturer Ehang released a video of the world’s first passenger drone, the Ehang 184.

The video showed the drone being put through its paces with and without a passenger. Many analysts watched the demonstration in amazement. The future was suddenly upon us.

The electric drone can carry one passenger, weighing up to 100 kilogrammes, and travels at speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour (kph).

Headquartered in Guangzhou, the capital of South China’s Guangdong province, the company describes the Ehang 184 as the “world’s first all-electric, consumer-facing autonomous passenger drone”. In other words, it is a flying car.

Two and a half years ago, Ehang was virtually unknown in the wider tech world.

The company strutted its stuff at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2016 and made the bold claim that it would build a completely autonomous, passenger-carrying quadcopter, a multi-rotor helicopter that is lifted by four rotors that would “revolutionise” mobility.

Andrew J Hawkins, a writer with The Verge, a technology news and media network in the United States (US), said, “Many of us in the tech community chortled under our breath at the time, wondering if such a thing was even possible, let alone advisable.”

Now, no one is laughing, as quadcopters, flying cars or taxis – call them what you will – are a reality. And as Hawkins wrote earlier this year, “This thing is no joke.”

Ehang is not the only Chinese company involved in the research and development of flying cars.

Late last year, Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, which owns Volvo and Lotus, acquired Terrafugia, a company in Boston, US, which plans to start selling flying cars by next year.

Bloomberg reported, “It’s the most prominent Chinese investment yet in an industry that’s attracting the talent and capital of some of the world’s most prominent entrepreneurs and investors. And it marks an important advance for a technology that could reshape the 21st-Century city.”

However, China is not alone in developing this technology. Dozens of companies worldwide are spending billions on research to get commercially viable flying cars off the ground.

Some of the leading contenders include Airbus and Daimler in Europe, Boeing, Bell Helicopter, Uber and Google in the US, and Aston Martin in Britain.

Increasing traffic congestion across megacities and large urban centres, coupled with the resulting economic losses, continue to drive the need for more efficient modes of urban transportation, according to business consultancy Frost & Sullivan.

Joe Praveen Vijayakumar, the company’s industry analyst, said flying cars are being explored as an alternative form of future mobility, making use of underused domestic airspace.

He said flying cars are set to disrupt the personal mobility space of the future, with at least 10 early entrants expected to launch various versions by 2022.

“This space has been witnessing bustling activity, with new players from various industries entering the race to build flying cars,” he said.

“We have also seen a surge in funding, as several companies have raised funds or been acquired by established players from the automotive industry.”

With the newly developed Ehang 184, it seems that all passengers need to do is climb into the small cabin, fasten their seat belts, and the automated flight system does the rest.

Ehang’s Chief Executive Officer Hu Huazhi said in a statement in February, “None of the traditional flying vehicles can achieve the goal of fully autonomous flying, so they are still far away from common people. But our successful flight means the scenes that we used to see only in sci-fi movies are now very close to common people.”

The company said the drone has been tested more than 1,000 times and is designed to withstand gales with wind speeds of up to 50kph. But each Ehang 184 costs a reported USD200,000 to USD300,000.

Last year, Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), announced a plan to cooperate with Ehang to develop self-flying taxis to transport people across the city.

Ehang cofounder Derrick Xiong said at the time, “The drone can help people to avoid traffic on the ground, but in other applications we can always think about emergency rescue, or we can transport patients to the hospital, or we can do tourism, you know, fly from one island to another.”

Analysts believe that flying cars and air taxis that ferry people to and from work, airports and between cities will be commonplace within the next two decades.