Someday soon, almost certainly within the next three years, automobile-sized “transportation vehicles” are going to be lifting straight up off the ground, hovering in the air, and then shooting off into the distance at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour.
Welcome to the world of electric flying cars, “eVTOL” as the insiders like to say, short for “electric vertical take-off and landing” aircraft. These battery-powered wonders have now caught the full attention of “serious people with serious money,” marvels Andrew Macmillan of Vertical Aerospace, one of the many start-ups racing to make eVTOL Wall Street’s Next Big Thing.
Overall investments in flying cars have jumped a whopping 30 times over since 2019. Fledgling flying-car concerns are merging with stashes of cash known as “special purchase acquisition companies,” or SPACs, to create new companies worth billions. One of the more high-profile outfits, Joby Aviation, now carries a $6.6-billion valuation.
Joby Aviation’s founder, JoeBen Bevirt, sees his new industry as nothing short of “transformational.” The “incredibly quiet” electric aircraft that companies like his are now fine-tuning, says Bevirt, “could become a ubiquitous mode of daily transportation.” They can “land where people want to go.”
“If the vision becomes reality,” an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers appraisal noted earlier this week, “hundreds of eVTOLs will swarm over the skies of a big city during a typical rush hour, whisking small numbers of passengers at per-kilometer costs no greater than those of driving a car.”
That vision is thrilling deep pockets the world over, from billionaire celebs like Google’s Larry Page and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman to top execs at corporations ranging from Boeing and Airbus to American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. Federal officials are getting involved as well. NASA is already collaborating with Joby Aviation on making the new eVTOLs “more accessible to the public.”
A bright new, environmentally friendly, flying-car future — all these heavy-hitters would like us to believe — will shortly be upon us. But not everyone is buying the hype. Indeed, the emerging eVTOL craze may end up providing us with a perfect case-study of who gets to see technology “solve” their problems in deeply unequal societies — and who gets to see their problems just continue to fester.
That vision of eVTOLs as a game-changing, affordable giant step toward environmental renewal? On closer inspection, argues Bloomberg’s David Fickling, this vision turns out to bear little correspondence to the physics of flight.
Yes, the new flying car prototypes can move efficiently once airborne. But rising up vertically to flying height takes enormous battery power. Flying cars can offset this initial energy expenditure if they fly at least 100 kilometers. The only problem: Some 85 percent of car trips today run shorter than 35 kilometers. At that distance, Fickling points out, flying cars operate no more efficiently than “a conventional gas-guzzling automobile.”
Flying cars also turn out to contribute mightily to sound pollution. The racket they make does diminish the higher flying cars fly. The problem here: The higher eVTOLs fly, the more fuel they have to use. So pick your poison. Either way, eVTOLs have little to offer people of modest means.
For the rich, a totally different story. Flying cars can provide the affluent a real service. They can transport people of ample means to their airport connections without having to hassle surface traffic.
Everything comes down, the chief exec of Virgin Atlantic Airways explained last month, to the last few surface miles that separate airline passengers from their airports: “You can spend hours on relatively short airport journeys by public transport or sit in a traffic jam. eVTOLs can do the trip in 30 minutes, and people will pay a premium for that.”
The airline industry’s biggest players — United, American, Japan Airlines — have all been busily cutting deals with flying-car start-ups. The heavier a city’s traffic congestion, the higher the airline interest in eVTOLs. One Brazilian airline has already committed to buy as many as 250 flying cars from Vertical Aerospace. São Paulo, an urban transportation disaster area where “traffic snarl-ups typically block hundreds of miles of road,” currently rates as the world’s “busiest city for helicopter flights.” The new Brazilian airline flying car order, observers feel, could help “transform travel” in the city.
Transform travel? Yes, but only for the affluent. Investments in eVTOLs, contends Bloomberg’s Fickling, are essentially functioning to “rebrand the dystopian old helicopter industry for a new generation of the super-rich.”
“A grimly plausible vision of the future will see NFT billionaires travel from San Francisco to their weekend escapes in Lake Tahoe, blithely ignorant of their true carbon footprints,” he writes. “The city-dwellers over whom they fly will be stuck in endless traffic, which the political system never seems to get round to solving.”
Real transformation in transportation — in São Paulo and every other traffic-choked major metropolis — would take significant new public investment in mass transit. But the rich have no interest in going down that road. They have no particular personal interest in ever setting foot in a bus — and even less interest in helping fund, through higher taxes, a more vibrant public transit network.
So don’t expect a shorter commute anytime soon and try not to strain your neck as you look up to watch those flying cars whoosh by. And please don’t forget the lesson in all this: Our plutocracies only solve the problems that plutocrats face.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. His earlier book, Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives, now appears free online through Inequality.org. Twitter: @Too_Much_Online.