The Airspeeder Mark I, developed by Alauda over the past two years, looks like something out of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Technically a quadcopter—that is, essentially a large drone, like Dubai’s air taxis—the conveyance features a single seat for a human pilot and can allegedly reach speeds of up to 124 miles per hour and cruise at an altitude of up to 2 miles. With custom-made wooden propellers, an aluminum frame, and four electric motors that have a combined 268 horsepower, the “car” is piloted much like a traditional aircraft with joysticks that control pitch and roll and pedals for yaw and throttle.
There aren’t any wheels, so street legality isn’t really a question—and as of now, that’s beside the point, anyway.
“We want to build the sports car of the sky, and to get there, we need a race,” the company’s founder, Matt Pearson, says in a promotional video. His ambition is to launch an entirely new sport, an airborne Grand Prix-style event in 2020. It’s a lofty goal for a company that hasn’t yet conducted manned test flights, although a note on their recently cancelled Kickstarter recommits to the timeline.
Alauda isn’t the only company to make the connection between flying cars and sport. Last summer, Toyota announced it was developing a flying car that it hoped would light the Olympic torch at the 2020 Tokyo games. The so-called Sky Drive project apparently got off to a rocky start; an unmanned test flight several months ago managed to lift it only a few feet off the ground before it crash landed and damaged its propellers. Toyota, which is currently rejiggering the design, plans Sky Drive’s first manned flight in 2019.
Is the flying car business—admittedly a stretch even to call it that at this point—getting ahead of itself? What’s really required to turn a technological oddity into a bona fide sport? Looking back on the genesis of other sports, diving straight to competitive races makes more sense than at first blush.
“The proper analogy to this is cycling,” explains Robert Edelman, a professor of the history of sport at the University of California, San Diego. “If you look up histories of cycling, somebody invents the bicycle, and it became a working class form of transportation—because they could not afford carriages or, later, cars—and then, having competitive races came to people’s minds as a way of popularizing bicycles and selling bicycles.”
Motorsports followed this model, too, and given the hefty price difference between a bicycle and a flying car (this is decidedly not a working class sport), makes for an even more apt comparison. The first cars weren’t available to the masses until the Model T in 1908, but “by World War I,” says Edelman, “you’re getting serious competitions, and in the 1920s, the Indianapolis 500 was already big.”
The takeaway: If you can drive it, someone will try to race it—there’s already a Drone Racing League for the remote-controlled variety as their popularity has ballooned in recent years. “Look at the history of Nascar—it starts out as a bunch of good ole boys driving their cars around,” Edelman said.
The best hardware comparison can perhaps be made to air racing—the competitive racing of airplanes over a fixed course—but its mixed success suggests that the sport-ification of flying cars will face an uphill battle. The world’s first air race took place in 1909, just six years after the Wright brother first took flight in 1903. Interest in the new field of aviation led to the development of several more big races in the runup to World War I through the 1920s. Today, there are a handful of air races around the world; the energy drink company Red Bull is behind a good number of them. But ask the average American about air racing, and you’ll get a blank stare.
Still, it’s arguably a good thing for Alauda and other innovators to aim high. Edelman noted that competition—among both racers and the inventors of vehicles—is a key ingredient for innovation and, down the line, the capitalization of it.
His advice? Like Formula One and Nascar racing before them, flying car innovators will “have to attract big-time sponsors, rich people who think this would be a cool thing to do,” Edelman said. “Maybe Richard Branson would want to get in on it?”
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©2018 Bloomberg L.P.