Are flying cars a better investment bet than flying pigs?

Michael Baxter looks at the potential of advancements in the motoring industry.

Article updated: 13 March 2018 10:00am Author: Michael Baxter

Flying cars - they were once a vision of the 21st Century, at least they were in the minds of 20th Century fiction writers.
Recall the Jetsons - the Hanna Barbara cartoon starring George Jetson, the man who sometimes had to slave away at work for two or even three hours in a single day. Then there was his wife Jane, two kids, a talking dog, and the tyrannical boss, Mr Spacely and, of course, flying cars.

That was how Hollywood, authors and it seems creators of kids’ cartoons envisaged it - the 21st Century, flying cars and monorails above us, a time of plenty for us on terra firma.

Instead we got mortgage securitisation, Donald Trump and social media. As Peter Thail, billionaire tech investor and co-founder of PayPal said: “We were promised flying cars, instead we got 120 characters.”
Well, I am happy to report progress. We now have 240 characters on Twitter to play with.

Meanwhile, it becomes hard to tell the difference between car parks and motorways - as the UK’s road network becomes stuffed with slow moving metal boxes on wheels - ever rising traffic numbers.

So far, the future has been a disappointment.

Cars

As it happens, I think the car industry has problems. As autonomous cars emerge - and they will emerge, the sheer fact that they will be so much safer than traditional cars make this inevitable - we will lose our sense of identity with our car. The next step from autonomous cars will be the sharing of cars - the Uber business model will converge with AI and LIDAR and all the technologies that will create driverless cars. As a result, we will own less cars, demand for cars in the developed world will peak, we will demand less snazzy cars, when car ownership goes, the vehicles themselves will lose much of their individual character. For the auto industry this will be a disaster. The big bucks will be made by companies that provide the technology.

Yet in this near future - I am talking next decade - less cars won’t necessarily mean less on the streets - more likely it will mean less parked cars, less of them on drives, tucked up in garages. Sure, in the age of the Internet of Things, and driverless cars in pelotons, traffic management will be more efficient, but there are limits to how much traffic even AI can manage.

The sky looks attractive again. Maybe this creates a new opportunity for business - including the auto industry, as horseless carriages give way to featherless birds.

Flying cars

I am aware of several companies that have been working on flying cars for some time. Most are start-ups, and their shares do not trade freely on stock markets. Not that investing in a start-up flying car company isn’t exceedingly risky.
But there are companies that are listed which are investing heavily in this area; among them Airbus and Ford.

Why?

I know what you are thinking. Safety. Flying cars, when added to the drones that are already up there, creates a recipe for disaster.

But AI, combined with sensors that make up the Internet of Things, adds a new dimension. Based on existing technology, flying cars are a recipe for accidents - but the technology that is under development, in which super-powerful AI can know the whereabouts of all drones and flying cars in a given area, will overcome this.

I am not sure why flying cars are emerging now. A combination of falling cost of carbon fibre, lithium ion batteries, and the knowhow acquired from drone technology may lie behind it.

Not certain

It is far from certain that the sky will be filled with cars soon, the Jetsonesque future may remain the stuff of cartoons forever. But what is clear is that technology is changing the car industry, creating opportunities for some and challenges for others.
According to CNN, Ford has a team of engineers in Silicon Valley working on drone technology with a view to creating flying vehicles - I am impressed by that. Airbus has been working on flying taxis for some time, that impresses me too. Many technology companies that are not currently in the car business may be the ones to watch. Alphabet and Apple continue to innovate and can’t be ignored.

But looking away from flying cars to just drones - once again Amazon impresses me with its long-term vision.


These views are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Share Centre, its officers and employees.

Michael Baxter portrait photo
Michael Baxter

Economics Commentator

Michael is an economics, investment and technology writer, known for his entertaining style. He has previously been a full-time investor, founder of a technology company which was floated on the NASDAQ, and a director of a PR company specialising in IT.

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