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Those sci-fi, futuristic movies from the 80s may well become a reality within the next decade.
During Xpeng's Tech Day over the past weekend, the Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer joined the ranks of futurists betting on a market for flying cars, showing a design for an electric vehicle with wheels and wings.
According to Xpeng, mass production of the flying car would begin in 2024, with a retail price of roughly $157,000. However, with no legal framework in place to handle vehicles in the air and no highways wide enough to accommodate the vehicle's extending propeller blades, Xpeng's 2024 deadline appears to be a stretch.
Surprisingly, Xpeng already has a slew of unmanned aerial travel competitors, including both startups and conventional airlines. In 2019, Boeing invested in a Porsche-developed flying taxi service. Guangzhou-based eHang raised $40 million in a Nasdaq IPO in 2019 and had sold 70 of its own autonomous aerial vehicles by the end of last year.
eHang promotes their self-driving aerial vehicles as pilotless air taxis that can transport high-flying executives to and from airports, or as emergency service vehicles that can rescue individuals stranded in floods or other difficult-to-reach terrain. The mainly single-passenger pods are more like personal electric helicopters than true flying automobiles in terms of functionality.
eHang's Autonomous 'Flying' Taxi
Geely, a Chinese automaker, said in March that it would introduce a flying automobile to the Chinese market in 2024. Manufacturers in the fledgling business appear to have settled on 2024 as the year when the industry will take off.
Xpeng's own flight of fancy, on the other hand, is meant to be driven as well as flown. The imaginary marque's flying is powered by twin propellers mounted on folding arms that extend from either side of the car's body when primed for flight, giving it a wingspan of roughly 12 meters. When the car is in car mode, the wings fold into a compartment inside the vehicle.
HT Aero, an urban air mobility business backed by Xpeng that obtained $500 million in Series A funding last week, built the newfangled flying aircraft. Six versions of flying passenger cars have been developed by the Xpeng affiliate so far. It hasn't sold a single unit.
But, according to Tu Le, founder and CEO of auto industry consultancy Sino Auto Insights, whether Xpeng's flying automobile ever actually takes off is beside the point. The actual reason for announcing a flying car is to describe what mobility will look like in the future.
Xpeng has made it obvious that it aims to be known as the most technologically advanced mobility company. Producing a flying car, even if only in small quantities, is still a nett gain for them right now.
Xpeng's Concept Vision
2024 appears to be far too soon for the broader regulatory environment to have given this meaningful consideration. In the provinces of Anhui and Jiangxi, several local governments have already established pilot zones where developers can test low-altitude aerial vehicles like flying taxis. There will be some safety issues to iron out.
Xpeng claims that its flying car will be equipped with advanced environmental sensors to conduct safety assessments prior to takeoff, but regulators are likely to want more assurances that the company has taken steps to mitigate the potential health and safety risks of a car with two high-velocity propellers deployed at roughly head height.
Take a look back to April of this year, when the Chinese authorities chastised Tesla officials for a claimed autopilot brake failure that caused one of their vehicles to crash. After originally refusing to disclose data from the crash with the implicated customer, the reprimand spurred Tesla to alter its data privacy standards in China. Despite the issue, Tesla's sales in China remained strong this year.
Xpeng's brand damage from a failing flying car would almost certainly be larger than Tesla's Autopilot troubles. The car has airbags and a parachute, which is a good thing.