Airbus Enters Human Carrying Drone Race: But Where Are Ford and GM?

By Rob Enderle January 16, 2017

There are now three flying human carrying drone efforts on top of the half dozen or so flying car efforts currently, or soon to be, undergoing testing around the world.  The latest two are from Urban Aeronautics out of Israel, and Airbus out of Europe.  These join Ehang, a Chinese company that was cleared to begin testing in Nevada last year and has perhaps the most compelling vehicle in the group. (Ehang already has a drone in market, but it is the typical picture-taking kind. However, it arguably has the best warranty in the business in that it covers crashes.)

What seems fascinating, given that the U.S. leads in technology and was one of the early pioneers in flying cars, is that, except for Intel, there is little apparent interest in flying cars from large U.S. companies.

Flying Cars to Human Carrying Drones

We’ve had flying cars actually in market on and off (mostly off) since Henry Ford floated the idea of a production vehicle that people could fly to work in 1926.  His idea was more of a Model-T like airplane but, since the prototype killed the pilot, it didn’t go far.  In 1956, Ford again tried to bring a flying car to market with a prototype called the “Volante,” but that also failed.  In 1957, Chrysler and others were contracted to build flying jeeps, because defense is willing to spend a ton of money. Unfortunately those, while fascinating, didn’t make it either. 

There have been several efforts to wed a car and an airplane. The one I remember best was the effort to bolt together a Ford Pinto and a Cessna Skymaster, but apparently the two parts hated each other because they separated at altitude, killing the top execs and the company.  I doubt it would have gone far because finding someone that would pay $250K+ for a Pinto with a big wing on it would have been problematic given the Pinto was an economy car with issues.  Why they didn’t start with something a tad higher end is beyond me.  

The most recent vehicle I was involved with was the Moller Skycar M400—a ducted rotor flying vehicle that looked great on paper but had the same problems that virtually all of these things had.  The massive requirement to train every person owning one how to fly a VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) vehicle was a bit too complicated.  This is not an easy skill set to acquire and Moller was one of the first to realize that the thing would largely have to fly itself; however, building an AI was beyond a small company like Moller’s capabiltiies.  

Then self-driving cars came, along with the realization that the technology needed to drive a car on the road by itself actually had to be more advanced, in terms of accident avoidance, than a plane would need. The advent of drones provided flight systems that were inexpensive and very reliable for regulating the needed multiple engines (for redundancy because you can’t pull over if an engine fails).   Finally, drones and electric cars brought forward the technology needed for the engines because gas engines just didn’t react fast enough for the ducted designs to work.  But, electric drones are flying now, and thus human drones were born. 

By the way, a company to watch is Altairnano, which has developed a lightweight, high energy density Lithium-Ion battery for large flying vehicles.   This brings up one other company to watch, Xplorair, which is building a human carrying drone estimated to cost around what a Tesla costs and uses a thermoreactor.  And suddenly I’m recalling the old TV show Supercar.  Oh mama, thermoreactor!!

Intel

Intel’s play as the only company of scale in the U.S. chasing people-driving drones is interesting.  Realizing it was well behind NVIDIA in the autonomous car race, it aggressively moved to drones and has begun testing its advanced drone flying technology in helicopters. Given that helicopters are substantially harder to fly than drones, the successful trials bode well for the effort.  Sometimes it is easier to go around a competitor than through it, though Intel is also working with firms like BMW to address the ground based vehicles as well.  

Wrapping Up:  So Where Are Ford And GM?

General Motors never seemed that interested in flying cars, and, after being burned a number of times, Ford seems less than excited as well. Both companies were relatively slow to the self-driving market, and GM with the Chevy Volt has moved far quicker to electric cars than Ford.   

I think the years of either company driving change are long past.  Tesla showcased that the U.S. can lead, but that the bigger firms just aren’t willing to push the envelope. That suggests that there is an increasing likelihood that the next big personal transportation wave, the move to human carrying drones, will occur overseas. 

Amazon, which is already developing a massive drone program, and Intel are likely the U.S.’s biggest opportunity to assure that this doesn’t happen.   So, to answer my opening question, “where are Ford and GM?,” the answer is, for now, apparently sleeping.  




Edited by Alicia Young

President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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