Ready or not, here comes Xpeng’s flying car—with wheels, wings, and a parachute

October 25, 2021, 10:04 AM UTC

Chinese electric-vehicle maker Xpeng has joined the ranks of futurists betting on a market for flying cars, unveiling a design for an electric vehicle with wheels and wings during the company’s Tech Day on Sunday.

Xpeng says the unnamed flying car—the X-wing? the Xpeng Locust?—will begin mass production by 2024 and retail for around $157,000. But with little regulatory framework in place to manage autos in the air and no roads wide enough to accommodate the vehicle’s extendable propeller blades, Xpeng’s 2024 deadline looks a little tight.

Remarkably, Xpeng already has numerous competitors in the unmanned aerial travel space, including both startups and legacy airlines. Boeing invested in a “flying taxi” service in 2019, developed by Porsche. Closer to home, Guangzhou-based eHang raised $40 million in a Nasdaq IPO in 2019 and, as of last year, had sold 70 units of its own “autonomous aerial vehicles.”

Courtesy of Xpeng

EHang markets its “autonomous aerial vehicles” as pilotless air taxis, good for ferrying high-flying executives to and from airports, or even as emergency service vehicles, for rescuing people trapped in floods or on other hard-to-reach terrain. The usually single-passenger pods are functionally more like personal electric helicopters than bona fide flying cars.

Xpeng’s own flight of fancy, however, is designed to take to the roads as well as the air. Flight on the theoretical marque is powered by twin propellers set on foldable arms that, when primed for flight, extend from either side of the car’s body, giving it a wingspan of around 12 meters. The wings retract to a compartment inside the car when it is in car mode.

The newfangled flying machine is designed by HT Aero, an “urban air mobility” company backed by Xpeng, which raised $500 million in Series A funding last week. The Xpeng affiliate has so far devised six generations of flying passenger vehicles. It has sold zero units.

But whether Xpeng’s flying car ever really gets off the ground is a little besides the point, says Tu Le, founder and CEO of auto industry consultancy, Sino Auto Insights. The real purpose of announcing a flying car is to define what the future of “mobility” looks like.

“Xpeng clearly wants to be known for pushing the envelope and being the most technologically advanced ‘mobility’ company,” Le says. Producing a flying car, “even if only sold in limited quantities, is still a net positive for them at this point in time.”

Yet Xpeng isn’t the first manufacturer trying to sell the idea of a flying car. In March, China automaker Geely also announced it would launch a flying car into the China market in 2024. Manufacturers across the nascent industry appear to have homed in on 2024 as the year when the field takes off.

Le says, however, that 2024 still seems too soon for the broader regulatory environment to have “considered this seriously.” Some local authorities in Anhui and Jiangxi provinces have already opened pilot zones where developers can test “low altitude airspace” vehicles such as flying taxis. There will be safety kinks to work out.

Xpeng says its flying car will be equipped with advanced environmental sensors to conduct safety assessments before takeoff but, presumably, regulators will want greater assurances that the company has taken steps to mitigate the potential health and safety risks of a car deploying two high-velocity propellers at roughly head height.

Hark back to April this year when the Chinese government reprimanded executives at Tesla over a reported autopilot brake failure that resulted in one of its vehicles crashing. The rebuke prompted Tesla to overhaul its data privacy practices in China, after initially refusing to share data from the crash with the involved customer. Despite the controversy, Tesla’s China sales continued apace this year.

Xpeng’s reputational fallout from a malfunctioning flying car would probably be greater than what Tesla suffered for its own autopilot woes. Thank goodness the car comes equipped with airbags—and a parachute.

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