By Pete Sweeney
(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist.)
HONG KONG, Nov 15 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Flying cars are performing some impressive stunts. Chinese automaker Geely and U.S. ride-sharing company Uber have just joined a growing list of high-powered backers of the futuristic transport. The deals may generate buzz, but they shouldn't distract investors from real challenges these companies face in the present.
They have taken a more serious turn of late, however. Certain advancements, especially stabilisation features used in drones and the development of higher-performance materials, are real. Prototypes of vehicles that can drive down roads, then take off and land vertically like helicopters, are proliferating. The parent of Geely Automobile Holdings, the $31 billion owner of Volvo, just bought Terrafugia, a startup promising a flying car by 2019. Uber signed a deal with NASA to produce software for low-altitude taxis that could be tested in Los Angeles - where "Blade Runner" was set - by 2020.
It all adds sex appeal for companies seeking to brand themselves as "mobility solution providers". Geely wants to promote an automobile marque called Lynk & Co that includes ride-sharing buttons built into a digital dashboard. Chinese tech titan Tencent, which invested in a Munich-based firm that proposes to shuttle New Yorkers to the airport in a stub-winged teardrop, is racing to create artificial intelligence for driverless cars. Uber's entire business model is in a state of flux as it aims to be a leader in logistics.
For all of these would-be futurists, there are plenty of more pressing business problems. And as drone makers - and ride-sharers - have learned, governments will be the final arbiters of business plans involving public space.
In China, for example, military controls on airspace make it impossible for Geely to deploy flying vehicles in their home market. The prospect of flocks of micro-planes dodging skyscrapers will make authorities everywhere skittish. That means the hype should be discounted, but it's no reason to discourage the dream.
- Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, parent of Hong Kong-listed Chinese carmaker Geely Automobile Holdings, said on Nov. 13 it had completed the acquisition of Terrafugia, a U.S. company focused on developing flying cars and related technology. No price information was disclosed.
- On Nov. 8Uber said it would work with NASA to develop software that could be used for "flying taxi" routes in low-altitude airspace. Uber would begin testing proposed flying taxi services across Los Angeles in 2020, following testing in Dallas/Fort Worth, according to Reuters.
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Reuters video of Lilium flying car