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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Autos

Sky Driving

Probably even before the Jetson’s cartoon, drivers have dreamed of operating their vehicles in the open air above the ground.  Putting drivers in flying vehicles for their commutes has indeed been depicted by George Jetson along with other science fiction and fantasy forecasts.

But lately, General Motors CEO, Mary Barra has stirred up interest urban air mobility.  They aren’t announcing a flying car quite yet, but they are certainly investigating the concept.  Whereas flying taxis may only be a flicker on the transportation horizon today, GM intends to explore ways to help make them an everyday reality.

In fact, according to auto-industry news reports, General Motors’ aspirations for such future technologies may be taking flight.  The company indicated last week that it will explore ways to branch beyond its traditional — and terrestrial — business and into aviation.

Calling it a “natural next step” in GM's quest for environmentally sound family transportation, Barra said the strength and flexibility of the company's Ultium battery system ”opens doors for many use cases, including aerial mobility.”  She made the comments while speaking to a group of investors at the virtual RBC Capital Markets conference late September.

Despite lacking details, the comments were welcomed by some analysts and investors eager to see automakers examine the possibility of extending their experience in electrification, autonomy and connected services to other transportation modes — like flying.  While others are more skeptical of the air-mobility future, Asad Hussain, mobility analyst at PitchBook, sees a future in an automotive-aviation hybrid.

“There’s a reason traditional auto companies are interested in this space,” he told Automotive News. “We believe innovation in battery technology spurred by electric cars will be central to electrifying the broader transportation space, including freight and aviation.”

Other automakers besides GM have invested in startups that are building prototype air taxis, which run the gamut from glorified drones to true flying cars capable of being both street-legal and airworthy.

An analysis by Morgan Stanley estimates a potential $1.5 trillion market — a force that could propel consumer air mobility from science fiction to reality.

“If we can operate a drone on a planet more than 30 million miles away, Morgan Stanley’s research center indicated, “then how hard is urban air mobility in the skies above Ohio?”

But many factors could thwart the optimism.  For example, flying cars would lead to unregulated congestion in the air, especially above big cities. And while some firms are exploring the concept, Boeing suspended operations at Boeing NeXt, its 2-year-old innovation division that had been exploring unmanned and piloted air-taxi applications.

Still, investments in vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, known commonly as VTOLs, could reap gains that make services tailored to urban areas more efficient and financially feasible.

Logistical, operational and safety challenges ensure an uncertain path to the air mobility market. But last November, Jim Adler, managing director at Toyota AI (Artificial Intelligence) Ventures, the automaker’s venture capital arm which has invested in air-mobility startup Joby Aviation said, “You can’t go down and build a lot of tunnels,” since that’s so difficult and costly.  He added, “Hyperloop, Big Dig, they don’t work. You can’t build more roads, at least in most cities. So where are you going to go?  You’ve got to go up, right?”

He may be right, and only time will tell if we’ll by “driving” above the roadways.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at precisiondriving@spokesman.com.