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Flying Cars vs Autonomous Vehicles – Which will win the race to dominate urban mobility?

The oncoming dog fight between planes, connected autonomous vehicles and flying cars. Part 1.

This is the first in a series of articles to be published ahead of a debate I’m moderating between François Auque of Airbus Ventures in Paris and Jason Ball of Qualcomm Ventures at the GCV Symposium in London on the future of urban and inter-urban transportation in May. These subjects will also be on the agenda at the GCV Asia Congress in Hong Kong in September.

The articles will be combined in a special Global Corporate Venturing report on venturing activity across the gamut of technologies and business models that are advancing “urban air mobility”, a phrase I first heard from François’s California-based colleague Thomas d’Halluin, who runs Airbus Ventures’ US office.

Please contact me if you’d also like to participate in the symposium and/or contribute to the report.

D’Halluin explains that flying cars are a lot closer than we think. He also believes they have a faster route to market than autonomous vehicles. Differing views are provided by Jon Lauckner, president of GM Ventures, the corporate venturing unit of car manufacturer General Motors (GM); Varun Jain, senior investment manager at Qualcomm Ventures, the CVC vehicle for mobile semiconductor maker Qualcomm; and Raj Singh, managing director at JetBlue Technology Ventures, the CVC subsidiary of airline operator JetBlue.

Each of these three venturing units (GM Ventures, Qualcomm Ventures and JetBlue Technology Ventures) is actively monitoring the autonomous vehicles and flying cars investment scene. General Motors’ (GM) $1bn acquisition of Cruise Automation – which had been backed by Qualcomm Ventures – put GM in the driving seat of future vehicle autonomy and provided a good exit for Qualcomm Ventures. As the venturing unit of a leading independent airline, Jet Blue Ventures is predicting and readying itself for what Singh calls a “dog fight involving commercial planes, connected AV [autonomous vehicles] and flying cars.”

If you are in the transport business, then your venture strategy could perhaps be described most simply as trying to back the right fighting dogs. It is going to be fascinating, because nearly every technological advance that is good for autonomous vehicles is also good for flying cars/drones and vice versa, i.e. they progress together as materials get lighter, batteries get stronger, light detection and ranging (LiDAR) improves and 5G goes mainstream. It may not be technology which determines who wins this race. “Ground-based vehicles are much farther ahead from a regulatory standpoint than flying cars or drones,” says Lauckner. D’Halluin believes that flying cars’ key advantage is that they are operating in an under-utilised environment. “Low altitude space is actually quite free and available,” he says.

AirMap, the California-based airspace management platform, is one of the companies offering to safely organise low altitude space. The company has developed a software platform that provides unmanned aerial vehicles with real-time airspace information and services, allowing them to safely fly at an altitude below 500 feet. Its $23m series B round, which closed in February, was led by Microsoft Ventures, the CVC arm of software provider Microsoft, with electronics and entertainment conglomerate Sony, Airbus Ventures and Qualcomm Ventures also involved. It is the latest in a growing number of deals that leverage satellite and internet technology, in which corporate VCs are increasingly active.

I co-chaired a Global Corporate Venturing dinner debate in London in March on whether flying cars or autonomous vehicles would dominate the future of urban and inter-urban transport. The debate was inconclusive because we could not agree on a particular urban location – – a lot depends on whether you pick Dubai or Naples. But what was beyond doubt was the excitement over the very prospect of flying cars. Seasoned corporate venturers, experienced lawyers and promising venture-backed startup executives all regressed to their childhoods and indulged in a common fascination. We might as well have all been wearing Batman pyjamas. We were a mostly male crowd, but that said, the women there were equally thrilled. And why not? What could be more exciting than flying cars?

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