“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters," wrote tech billionaire Peter Thiel, in 2011. Well, Twitter is now going to allow 280 characters in a tweet, and soon—we are told—we will finally get a flying car.
Terrafugia, which in 2006 became one of the very first of a new crop of flying-car companies, says it will have one in 2019. And though that is only the latest in a long string of deadlines the company has set, perhaps—Perhaps!—this will be the first one that it honors. Reason: The company has just been acquired for an undisclosed sum by Geely, the Chinese automotive company that owns Volvo. The R&D funds should flow profusely.
A lot of companies from around the world are chasing the same dream—among them Toyota, Google’s Larry Page, Germany’s eVolo, and China’s EHang. Vahana, a subsidiary of Airbus, was supposed to test-fly a prototype this year, as I wrote back in January, but here we are in November with no air taxi. I am not shocked, that this is the case; in this business, deadlines are aspirational.
What’s more, the Vahana craft was supposed to be autonomous. That makes sense, even if it’s devilishly hard to manage. There’s just no other way to make money off a battery-powered plane that can ferry a mere one or two passengers at a time.
Terrafugia has dreams of autonomy as well, in the shape of its TF-X model, but the company has put its deadline a good seven or eight years further out. Not including a fudge factor.
Okay, so it may seem we’re beating up on a futuristic company that dares to dream big. But IEEE Spectrum and Terrafugia go back a long way, like an old married couple. We’ve been grousing about why we consider Terrafugia’s ambitions unreasonable ever since we first labeled the company a “loser,” back in 2007.
The reasons for our skepticism haven’t changed. Making a car into a plane is really just a way of making a plane that can kinda, sorta move down a road without knocking off the heads of parking meters. Such “roadable” planes have absolutely no appeal as a car. Indeed, the same can be said of those crazy cars that were supposed to float like boats or even submerge like submarines. No, seriously! Take a look at the Lotus Esprit that sent James Bond diving deep, in “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977).
One thing has changed, though. Today there’s a lot of serious money behind the flying-car dreams, and the question is why.
It could be sheer personal enthusiasm. For instance, Billionaire Larry Page is putting his own money into his secretive flying-car project. Maybe there just wasn’t a good enough business case for Google to back it with corporate funds.
Then there’s the tech-demo argument. Doing hard things on a small scale may be a good way to master robotics, sensor fusion, and other skills that will come in handy in self-driving cars and super-automated jetliners. This argument may lie behind Geely’s acquisition policy, which has also swept up companies with expertise in other aspects of self-driving cars and suchlike. Here’s a checklist of the tech moves the Chinese company has made lately, from Automotive News.
Finally there’s the cool factor. Elon Musk—who, interestingly, is not trying to give cars wings—has always used outlandish projects to fire up the imagination. Witness the Hyperloop, the Boring Company, SpaceX—and Tesla itself. Such quests for miracles attract top engineering talent.
But remember: Musk originally got rich—alongside Peter Thiel—by developing a new way to handle money, culminating in PayPal. If you’re looking for a commercially compelling tech project, look no further.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.