What was once pure science fiction is now a reality, with a company looking to produce a flying car within the next two years. China has long been a laggard in this sector but is now showing real interest.
Chinese group Zhejiang Geely recently acquired Terrafugia Inc., a company based in Boston and which is looking have flying cars on the market by 2019. This acquisition is the largest Chinese investment in a sector which is currently attracting talents and capital from around the world. The concept, meanwhile, represents a huge leap forward in technology which could transform the cities of the 21st century.
From science fiction to first prototypes
Flying cars have certainly come a long way since an imaginative journalist devoted an issue of Popular Science magazine to them in 1924. And thanks to recent advances in light materials, batteries and software for driverless vehicles, they could be seeing the light of day in the very near future.
Prototypes currently under development are along the lines of small electric aircraft which are for the most part autonomous. Some are designed to be private helicopters, others buses or taxis, which will help to reduce pollution and urban traffic.
Investments are flooding in and plenty of companies are already jockeying for position, including Airbus SE, Alphabet Inc. and Uber Technologies, who have announced a partnership with NASA which aims to have flying taxis in Los Angeles by 2020. A number of governments are already financing research in this sector, while legislators are looking into how they can integrate flying vehicles into current traffic networks.
China playing catch-up
For a long time, China was not part of the international field competing to develop flying cars, for various different reasons. The first was that its R&D budget was primarily being devoted to product development (84% compared with 35% – 65% for more affluent countries). China is still very much a developing nation and one with more down-to-earth requirements, but that is currently evolving.
Secondly, there were issues with legislation. Four-fifths of Chinese air space are still under military control, which certainly put the brakes on the development of the rapidly expanding aviation market in the country. Both the army and airlines are therefore reticent when it comes to welcoming flying vehicles in the skies over China.
It is highly likely, therefore, that the first flying cars will be the playthings of the very rich, who can afford craft costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, before more pragmatic prototypes such as air taxis follow in their footsteps.
China ready to take a leap forward
China is beginning to invest heavily in new technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence, making innovation a national objective. The country can be expected to invest in research into flying cars, which would provide numerous benefits for the environment, urban design, quality of life, productivity and economic growth.
The burgeoning Chinese middle class can also be expected to have a significant influence on the development of future cars and transport in general, on a national and also a global level. The acquisition of US company Terrafugia by China’s Geely is a clear indication of this transformation.
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