As tech and auto giants continue to toil on their autonomous vehicle projects, according to one Geely executive, such technology will come to flying cars more quickly than road vehicles.

Despite regulatory barriers and ethical issues, self-flying cars are likely to be ready before autonomous road vehicles, Guo Liang, chief executive of Geely-owned Aerofugia said at the Beyond Expo event held in Macau on Dec. 3. The movements of unmanned aerial vehicles are supervised by aviation authorities, which makes them more coordinated and safer than ground vehicles, according to Guo.

The idea of building an on-demand ride-hailing service for the skies is gradually getting off the ground in China, as eVTOLs, or electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, are transitioning from a pie-in-the-sky concept to a maturing technology and promising investment opportunity.

Geely is among a number of companies – from auto majors to venture-backed startups – racing to grab a foothold in this nascent market. In September 2020, the company took a big step into aviation by forming Aerofugia through a merger with Chinese drone developer AOSSCI.

Prior to that, China’s biggest private automaker had invested in German flying taxi startup Volocopter in September 2019. Volocopter in April said it had formed a joint venture with Geely’s Aerofugia, with a plan to bring 150 eVTOL aircraft to China as early as 2024, Reuters reported.

Electric vehicle maker Xpeng Motors also aims to stretch itself beyond just selling cars, in October leading a $500 million Series A investment round in aviation startup HT Aero at a pre-money valuation of $1 billion. Morgan Stanley estimated the global urban air mobility (UAM) market for flying cars and taxis could be worth $1.5 trillion by 2040.

Unlike conventional helicopters or airplanes, electric-powered vertical-lift machines can take off and land without a runway while delivering low-carbon air travel without producing emissions, providing commuters with a new way to speed above crowded streets.

Guo called for a joint effort from industry players to scale up urban air mobility operations with regards to technical standards and route management, among other industry-wide aspects.

A clear regulatory framework and established infrastructure on the ground also need to be in place for the vehicles, noted Jiang Yutao, vice president of Chinese flying taxi startup EHang. Also speaking as part of Beyond, Jiang added that eVTOLs could help the country meet its climate goals.

Nasdaq-listed Ehang expects to obtain approval from the Civil Aviation Administration of China for its autonomous aircraft EH216 “in the next few months,” Hu Huazhi, chief executive told investors during its third-quarter earnings call last week.

Such moves make Guo’s prediction more grounded than it may first appear, with a number of companies seemingly believing that automated flying cars are very much on the horizon in the next decade.

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen