Electric car sales continue to boom, with the global EV fleet expected to reach 10.5 million by the end of 2020. The reasons for this growth are not difficult to establish: EVs are quiet, smooth to drive, and cheap to run. Traditionally, range anxiety was among the main reasons preventing these cars from selling in greater numbers. However, most mainstream models are now capable of covering more than 200 miles between charges — not to mention that the EV charging infrastructure is also expanding at an unprecedented pace.
On the other hand, flying vehicle concepts powered by the aid of artificial intelligence (AI), machine vision, and light detection ranging (LiDAR) sensors have entered testing stages as companies negotiate the last steps of regulations to utilize the skies safely. Flying electric taxis and flying vehicles sporting competitions could become the norm in just a few years, with the electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) sector reaching an expected worth of $1.5 trillion by 2040.
While technology continues to push on forward, some questions arise: Could the spread of electric and flying cars spark fights for control over the automobile market? Are these industries competitors, or will they find their own and differentiated uses? And ultimately, as both EVs and flying cars have evolved, should either side be worried about the other?
Electric cars use rechargeable batteries and are quieter than diesel and gasoline alternatives. They also have no exhaust emissions and lower emissions overall. Several countries have established incentives for plug-in electric vehicles such as subsidies and tax credits that make the price of running these cars much lower than their diesel and gasoline counterparts.
The number of compelling electric cars on offer is growing. Currently, EVs have a higher upfront price due to the cost of batteries and the generally smaller production efforts. However, as automakers increase their quantities, EVs should become the same price as traditional cars.
In early 2020, the Tesla Model 3 became the world’s all-time best-selling EV. With a maximum electric range of 500 km (310 miles), the car combines clever battery technology with powerful electric motors and high-tech onboard systems. The Tesla Model S, which usually holds the leading position in luxury hybrid and electric car rankings, has even more range and can accelerate like million-dollar supercars.
Most automakers have electric models available nationwide. Porsche has the Taycan, Audi has the e-tron, Jaguar has the I-Pace, Hyundai has the Ioniq Electric, Chevrolet has the Bolt, Kia has the Niro EV, BMW has the i3, and Nissan has the Leaf. According to a guide by automotive Magazine, Car and Driver, these cars still "made up a small percentage of the total automotive market in the summer of 2020, but their appeal continues to grow as the automakers expand their range, performance, and style."
In the last years, the range of electric vehicles has also expanded to include buses and vans. Nissan developed the eNV200, Citroën has the Berlingo, and Renault has the Kangoo ZE. Iveco, LDV, and Volkswagen are all working on upcoming models, and the Mercedes e-Sprinter will be on sale in the next few days. Companies like BYD, Volvo, and Daimler are also developing long-haul electric trucks, Nikola semi-trucks with fully electric or hydrogen fuel cell capabilities, and Rivian is accepting pre-orders for a range of adventure vehicles.
Electric vehicles are definitely having an impact. Even in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Europe EV sales have grown by 57%, reaching 6.7% vehicle share. Volumes in the U.S. were significantly held back by a 7-week shut-down of Tesla from March until mid-May, although 142,000 Model 3 were still delivered in H1 2020. That’s over 100,000 more than the second most sold car, the Renault Zoe.
With range no longer being a problem and more charging stations popping up across the globe (not to mention government regulations restricting the manufacture and sale of traditional vehicles), EVs are poised to see a steep increase in adoption rates. They are cheap to run, easy to drive, and look similar if not better than diesel/gasoline vehicles. But could their acceleration be thwarted by the development of flying vehicles?
The technology required to make flying vehicles is, in large part, already established. Drones use multiple rotors to take off vertically and zoom horizontally, while batteries have evolved to become more lightweight and reliable. Companies like Zipline and Walmart, for example, are already running automated deliveries using drones.
The biggest question for the flying vehicle market is whether passengers can be carried in a safe and regulated manner. The governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, Israel, and UAE have already taken positive action toward the development of legal frameworks for both drones and flying cars. In addition to NAS/FAA and environmental regulations, appropriate certification for pilots, and rules for takeoff and landing facilities or “vertiports,” the industry will need to address operational challenges and ensure safety during adverse weather conditions such as high wind, heavy rainfall, and snowstorms, among others.
It’s expected that the first flying vehicles will be taxis, probably picking both cargo and passengers from and to urban helipads. These will be either piloted by certified operators or be completely autonomous. Uber’s Elevate program hopes to provide commercial on-demand air taxi services by 2023, and it’s already working with Bell, EmbraerX, and Karem Aircraft to test their eVTOL fleet in Los Angeles, the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and Melbourne, Australia. General Motors has also expressed interest in exploring options for the urban aerial taxi market using their Ultium electric batteries, which can give a range of 400 miles.
As well as flying taxis, in the coming years, we will probably also see a surge in flying speeders. Acronis, a company in charge of securing performance data for Formula One and Premier League Football teams, is already partnering with motorsport series Airspeeder to turn flying racing cars into a reality. These races are expected to create public acceptance for a new mobility revolution.
Flying cars may be available for commercial use as early as 2025. Does this mean electric cars could suffer from their deployment?
Flying vehicles will require the implementation of both regulation and infrastructure that is already present for electric vehicles. However, technological progress in developing flying cars is accelerating rapidly all across the world. Boeing, Airbus, and more than a dozen startups are currently working on flying vehicles that could free increasingly busy roads and cut emissions.
The adoption of flying cars will happen in a staged manner, depending largely on regulations and industry developments. Specialty vehicles such as ambulances, law enforcement, or construction will be implemented first, followed by ridesharing companies and, eventually, civilians. The transition to being able to manufacture vehicles with lightweight, strong composite materials using aviation methods will also require unprecedented scaling, while humans will need to overcome several psychological barriers as well before flying cars can be widely accepted and adopted.
The purpose of the two types of vehicles will perhaps be determined by something that will set the markets apart, at least during the coming years. Electric cars are a cheaper, smoother, and more eco-friendly alternative to cars. They require little effort for people to transition to them and offer several immediate and noticeable advantages in terms of performance and comfort. Flying vehicles, on the other hand, are a completely new type of transport. Emergent flying car technologies will have to meet not only the technical and safety standards of both cars and airplanes but will probably be costly to acquire and maintain — at least initially. If used for more than ridesharing by licensed pilots, people will need to get new certifications in order to be able to fly them, while urban design would have to go through a complete overhaul in order to accommodate the new routes.
There is also a sociological question. Some believe that flying cars will only deepen segregation, as those wealthy enough to afford them will achieve hyper seclusion and hyper access. There’s merit to this statement. Electric cars share the road with all sorts of other vehicles, and there’s little consequence whether they are self-driven or run by the user. And as they become cheaper and benefit from government subsidies due to their environmental advantages, EVs also, in a way, democratize access to their advanced technologies.
It’s too early to tell if flying cars will replace road vehicles in the long term. It is not known, either, if this change will negatively impact society as a whole — competition drives innovation, and innovation sometimes drives accessibility.
For the moment, there’s one thing these vehicles have in common: They can both reduce power use and emissions. And that’s great news for our very busy, polluted cities.
About the Author
Yisela Alvarez Trentini is an Anthropologist + User Experience / Human-Computer Interaction Designer with an interest in emerging technologies, social robotics, and VR/AR.