Journalists are trained skeptics. In our newsroom, few topics draw as much healthy skepticism as aerial mobility. “Nothing but glorified helicopters,” the response might go when the subject turns to electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. Don’t even mention the rare, but very real, bona fide flying car, which can zoom through in the sky then drive on the road.
It’s easy to understand why people are reluctant to believe in such technologies. Depending on your generation, the notion of flying cars may evoke memories of a certain future-themed cartoon series from the 1960s (I promised myself I wouldn’t mention it in this issue) or a popular time-travel film that co-starred a flying DeLorean — one with vertical landing ability to boot.
But the new developments we’re seeing in air mobility are not works of fiction. Something has to be motivating automakers and entrepreneurs to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in research projects and to form partnerships to explore the technology. At one point, even Uber and Boeing wanted a piece of the action. Some air mobility ventures are headed for the public markets, including Lilium, which is merging with a blank-check company led by a former General Motors executive.
This issue of Shift started out as a passion project for the staff, as we saw major automakers showing serious interest in electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles and also saw flying-car ventures beginning to win government certification. Wall Street also seemed to be on board. “Seriously … Flying Cars ARE Coming,” read the headline of a January report by Morgan Stanley.
Yes, there are significant regulatory and cost hurdles, but it’s not too much of a stretch. The aviation and automotive industries have a long history together, most notably, Detroit’s days as the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II, when automakers began cranking out bombers and fighter jets to support the troops. Even zeppelins have an auto connection.
In “Flying in Tight Formation,” our resident aviation enthusiast, Deputy Mobility Editor Pete Bigelow, who previously was certified as a commercial pilot and a flight instructor, details how aerial technology could represent the next step in diversifying automakers’ mobility offerings. In “Learning by Deadly Example” he also examines the valuable lessons that airplane disasters could teach the auto industry about the pitfalls of automation complacency.
We also take you to space in this issue. Reporter C.J. Moore writes about the race to build the next lunar rover in “Reaching for the Moon,” and correspondent Jack Keebler explains why Tesla and Geely are taking steps to launch thousands of satellites into low-Earth orbit in “AI in the Sky.”
So I suppose the lesson from this issue is sometimes if you want to look forward, you have to look up.