Few things symbolise the future as much as the idea of flying cars, from The Jetsons to Blade Runner. But now, thanks to new technology, they are here for real.
October 25, 2023
Hello and welcome back to Observations. It’s a busy week, coming off of a Helsinki trip last week and the frenzy around the first edition of Beauty Innovation Talks in Stockholm taking place tomorrow. Therefore I’m posting a text I wrote for the Swedish newspaper supplement SvD Perfect Guide last year, translated into English just for you.
I’ve long been fascinated by eVTOLs, and I still think they have the potential to rewrite the relationship between the city and the countryside. The below article still summarises my key takeaways.
Upcoming: the first edition of Virtual Creativity Live, a new event series about the future of creativity and expression, is coming to Stockholm on November 8, in collaboration with Lynk & Co. Stay tuned for an invite.
“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
The iconic quote was uttered by venture capitalist and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel nearly a decade ago. He was frustrated that the startup world was focusing far too little on big issues like transportation and energy and far too much on trivialities like text-based social media apps, such as Twitter.
Well, Peter, it seems like the future has finally caught up.
There is currently a frenzy of activity among aviation-oriented startups that want to turn what has long been fiction into reality – building aircraft that are as easy and convenient to use as a regular car. Forward-thinking entrepreneurs and engineers have spent the past decade developing quiet, safe, energy-efficient, and affordable helicopter alternatives.
The solution is called eVTOL vehicles, short for Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing. They are a kind of enlarged drone, powered by electricity and flying with the help of a multitude of small propellers. They can take off like a traditional helicopter and then fly away like a smaller sports aircraft.
Today, there are approximately 250 companies worldwide developing their own versions of eVTOLs. One of the most well-known examples is Uber Elevate, a joint venture between the ride-sharing app Uber and the airline Joby Aviation.
On the company’s website, you can see a tantalizing video that paints a picture of its potential use. A woman walks down a city street and opens her Uber app. But instead of ordering a car, she books a flight with an eVTOL taxi. She enters a nearby skyscraper, and takes the elevator to the rooftop, where her flying Uber is waiting. Then she zooms above the cityscape while cars remain stuck in ground traffic. Before you know it, she’s at her family’s cosy countryside home.
In just a few minutes, the video summarizes the potential of eVTOLs: in traffic-choked metropolises, many would be willing to pay extra to shorten their commute times.
Uber’s vehicles travel at around 350 kilometres per hour with a range of approximately 250 kilometres. The plan is for Uber Elevate to launch its test flights next year in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Melbourne.
“Advanced aircraft have the potential to have exponentially positive effects on the environment and on future generations,” said Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi.
Flying cars have long been part of popular culture’s vision of the future. From 1960s children’s films like The Jetsons and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, to 1980s Blade Runner and Back to the Future, to more contemporary visions of the future like the TV series Westworld.
The latter example is the one that most closely resembles today’s technologies. It’s a kind of luxurious flying taxi service, transporting business people between meetings in crowded metropolises like Los Angeles and New York.
Few believe that private individuals will own their own eVTOLs. Instead, the hope is that costs will come down enough to compete with high-speed trains.
”We won’t be as cheap as the trains to begin with,” says Daniel Wiegand, CEO and founder of Lilium, to The New York Times. ”But if we don’t get there within 15 years, we’ve failed.”
Lilium is a German eVTOL company planning to launch a seven-seat electric aircraft in 2024. The company started as a student project at the Technical University of Munich in 2014 (a year after Peter Thiel made the above quote) and has since evolved into one of the most exciting and well-funded tech companies in the world. Among the investors is the Swedish Skype founder Niclas Zennström’s company Atomico.
Daniel Wiegan emphasizes sustainability as one of the primary reasons for developing electric aircraft. They have low carbon emissions, are quieter and safer than helicopters, and don’t require the same massive investments in infrastructure as trains and road traffic. In short, there’s no need for roads or tracks to scale up air traffic.
In addition to shortening commutes to the suburbs of major cities, they would also bring nearby cities closer together. An example: Getting from Lower Manhattan to downtown Philadelphia, a distance of about 15 miles, usually takes over 2 hours by train or car. With an eVTOL, the journey would be cut in half.
Translated to Swedish conditions, it would mean being able to travel from Stockholm to Örebro in just about an hour.
Our attitude towards remote work changed fundamentally with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. One can only speculate about what will happen when commuting distances to our major cities are cut in half. It’s easy to imagine that beautiful rural areas in Sörmland and Dalarna will become much more attractive.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The technology is far from entering Swedish airspace. Even though several of the companies hope for launch dates within the next 2-3 years, there is still much to be done. Authorities need to approve them, infrastructure in the form of takeoff and landing sites (called ”vertiports”) must be established, and last but not least: costs must come down.
”The transport infrastructure is broken,” says Daniel Wiegan. ”It costs people a lot of time, requires a lot of space in our public environments, and emits too much carbon dioxide. We want to create something that is accessible to everyone, makes less noise, and is kinder to the environment.”
For our latest episode, creative director Erik Olofsson and I went behind the scenes of Scandinavian MIND Agency. We talked about the importance of being insights-driven in your communication, what brands can do to strengthen their trust and credibility, and the story of why we built an agency in the first place. Listen to the episode here.
Enjoyed this? this? E-mail me at email@example.com and give me your feedback.