Protocol | China

Will China really have flying cars in 2024?

Insiders say it's not (quite) so soon for EV maker XPeng's flying dreams.

XPeng flying car

XPeng unveiled the new generation of flying car design on Oct. 24.

Photo: XPeng

On either side of the Pacific Ocean, tech companies seem to have an obsession with the sky. While Elon Musk is launching rockets to space, Chinese electric vehicle company XPeng — a prominent domestic challenger to Tesla — is aiming for a lower altitude. On Oct. 24, it released a new product: a flying car that it says will enter mass production in 2024.

With two big propellers and a sci-fi design, XPeng's new product resembles a cross between a drone, a helicopter and an electric car. Suddenly, everyone in China is talking about flying cars, or Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft, as they are more formally known. Above everything, people are asking whether the promise of rolling them out in 2024 is realistic or over-optimistic. So far, it looks like the pessimists are more likely right.

2021 has seen China's VTOL industry, especially new "eVTOL" models powered by electricity, growing steadily. Startups born this year are raising millions of dollars in seed funding while those with a few more years have received up to $500 million. But despite interest in the capital markets, there are many obstacles before an eVTOL product can make it into the skies.

In particular, eVTOLs are regulated as aircraft, meaning they need to undergo a different set of safety tests than cars. With the only VTOL-specific standards in the world proposed recently in Europe, no one knows how long the regulatory approval process in China could take. Observers say companies like XPeng may have the advantage in attracting media and investor interest, but ultimately, they are being too optimistic about the aircraft industry and its regulators, both of which act at a more prudent but slower pace than their automotive counterparts.

The industry disruptor

Much like how EVs have posed a serious challenge to traditional cars, eVTOLS are changing the industry of civil aviation.

"The number of parts in an eVTOL is about one-thirtieth the number of parts in a traditional civil aircraft," Louis Liu, founder of aviation and maritime tech consulting firm DAP Technologies, told Protocol. "This is why eVTOL is the future. It's less likely to break, its maintenance costs are low and it consumes electricity instead of gas."

The low technological barriers and strong commercial potential have attracted startups with little civil aviation experience. EHang, China's leading eVTOL company, listed on Nasdaq, started with consumer drone products. Zhao Deli was an amateur model-airplane fan before founding the company HT Aero, which was acquired by XPeng and developed the product released last week.

These firms represent a disruptive force in an industry that's traditionally more prudent when designing new products. In any country, developing an aircraft needs to go through rigid processes of getting an airworthiness certificate. Currently in China, no such certificate has been given to any eVTOL companies; in fact, the criteria for handing out a certificate has not been updated to accommodate eVTOL technologies, meaning companies can't apply for one even if they want to.

"Those outside [companies] unfamiliar with the aviation industry don't act in the traditional way. They operate with an internet company mindset, which is rapid reiteration and trial and error," said Liu. But their method may not work in the civil aviation industry, where safety concerns are taken more seriously than in the auto industry or drone industry.

A more realistic prediction

Around the world, eVTOL — and the futuristic urban air mobility solutions they could enable — remain an exciting prospect with no immediate results.

In a report released this year, Morgan Stanley walked back its optimistic predictions from two years ago and determined that exponential growth for eVTOL will only start "closer to 2040 or beyond."

"As for the odds of [XPeng's passenger aircraft] taking commercial flights in cities by 2024, I'm leaning towards a no. A serious amount of reliability and safety testing of all systems lies ahead," said Daniel Shaposhnikov, partner at London-based VC Phystech Ventures, which focuses on deep-tech companies. Apart from China's national regulators, he pointed to municipal regulators and even NIMBYists as factors likely to slow the pace to acceptance for urban air mobility products.

On a global scale, Shaposhnikov predicted the mass operation of air taxis (which is expected to be the real game-changer instead of private, hobby-use eVTOLs) to come in six to 10 years.

Liu is also not optimistic about the timeline that XPeng has laid out. It usually takes two or three years for regulators to come up with the requirements for getting an airworthiness certificate; only after getting this can companies design their products based on national standards. "To clear the whole process, you need four or five years," Liu said.

The benefit of being future-forward

Realistic or not, this move may give XPeng supporters something to talk about for a while.

XPeng has entered a neck-and-neck race with Nio and Li Auto, two other Chinese EV startups native to the internet era which, like XPeng, also lack support from traditional automakers. Between April and October, all three of them have crossed the important threshold of 100,000 EVs produced. Remarkably, it took Tesla 12 years to reach the same milestone, twice the time it took these three.

Called the "three swordsmen" of Chinese domestic EV companies, they are often compared with one another. A recent survey of over 1,000 Chinese EV owners found that each company bested the other two in at least one category, from popularity to reputation to recommendation value.

To stand out in the race, XPeng may be betting on positioning itself as an aggressively forward-looking company. "EVTOL is one of the future disruptive moonshot technologies, so I think XPeng is trying to be at the forefront ... to define the future of mobility/transportation," Xing Lei, an auto industry analyst and former chief editor at the Beijing-based China Auto Review, told Protocol.

But of course, it depends on whether XPeng can keep its promise of delivering eVTOL products in 2024. Otherwise, it's going to stay grounded for longer.

Protocol | Workplace

CTO to CEO: The case for putting the tech expert in charge

Parag Agrawal is one of the few tech industry CTOs to nab the top job. But the tides may be shifting.

Parag Agrawal’s appointment to Twitter's CEO seat is already alerting a new generation of CTOs that the top job may not be so out of reach.

Photo: Twitter

Parag Agrawal’s ascension to CEO of Twitter is notable for a few reasons. For one, at 37, he’s now the youngest CEO of an S&P 500 company, beating out Mark Zuckerberg. For another, his path to the top as a CTO-turned-CEO is still relatively rare in the corporate world.

His leap suggests that CEO succession trends may be shifting, as technology increasingly takes the center stage in business and strategy decisions not just for tech companies, but for the business world more broadly.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.

The fintech developers who made mobile banking as routine as texting or online shopping aren't done. The next frontier for innovation is open banking – fintech builders are enabling consumers to be at the center of where and how their data is used to provide the services they want and need.

Most people don't even realize they're using open banking services today. If they connected their investment and banking accounts in a personal financial management solution or app, they're using open banking. Perhaps they've seen ads about how they can improve their credit score by uploading pay stubs or utility records to that same app – this is also powered by open banking.

Keep Reading Show less
Bob Schukai
Bob Schukai is Executive Vice President of Technology Development, New Digital Infrastructure & Fintech at Mastercard, where he leads the technical design, execution and support of innovative open banking and fintech solutions, as well as next generation technologies to support global payment and data capabilities. Prior to Mastercard, Schukai’s work focused on cognitive computing, financial technology, blockchain, user experience and digital identity. He is also a member of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Protocol | Workplace

Google contractor says she was fired for 'ungoogley' behavior

According to a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board, "ungoogley" is Google's term for having a bad attitude.

A contractor at Google staffing firm Modis claims she was fired from her job after asking about pay.

Photo: Future Publishing/Getty Images

A contractor at Google staffing firm Modis claims she was fired from her job for "ungoogley" behavior after asking about holiday pay at a meeting with management, according to a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board by a lawyer for the Alphabet Workers Union.

Tuesday Carne said in an interview with Protocol that she was fired after just nine days of working in the data contracting facility in South Carolina. Carne's termination letter (which Protocol reviewed) called her behavior at the meeting "unacceptable and 'ungoogley'" and claimed that her behavior was the reason for her firing.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Protocol | Policy

Biden FCC nominee Sohn is walking a tightrope with Republicans

Gigi Sohn faces plenty of GOP opposition, but the longtime net-neutrality advocate is hoping to pick up a little Republican support as she deals with Democrats’ narrow margins.

Gigi Sohn’s work for net neutrality has become an issue in her confirmation hearings for the FCC.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Gigi Sohn wouldn’t mind getting support from a Republican or two, and it’d certainly make her path back to the Federal Communications Commission easier.

During her Senate Commerce Committee confirmation on Wednesday, Sohn, a progressive favorite and longtime net-neutrality advocate, touted her commitment to ensuring a diversity of voices on the airwaves, her past fights for small conservative networks she personally disagrees with and her habit of socializing with those she battles on policy.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Protocol | Workplace

Microsoft Teams is going after small businesses

Microsoft Teams Essentials offers longer, bigger meetings for a relatively small price tag.

Companies can now buy a standalone version of Teams.

Photo: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

Microsoft announced Wednesday that companies can now buy a standalone version of Teams — one of its most important products and a major player in work messaging and video chat, alongside Slack and Zoom. The product, called Microsoft Teams Essentials, aims to give small or medium-sized businesses a communication hub that costs less than its competitors'.

Microsoft will charge small businesses $4 per user per month for Microsoft Teams Essentials, while Zoom’s cheapest paid plan is $14.99 per user per month and Slack’s is $6.67 per user each month, when billed annually. The free version of Microsoft Teams still exists, as do the various other Microsoft 365 plans that include Teams. Teams Essentials offers longer meeting times, larger group meetings and more cloud storage.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Latest Stories