Now There’s Talk Of Autonomous Flying Cars

Yes, we’ve been hearing about flying cars for over a decade now, but they are in the news again. And this time, there’s talk of totally autonomous flights, even before the so-called electric vertical takeoff and landing air taxis (eVTOLs) are officially launched.

American venture-backed Joby Aviation’s electric air taxi service is still a few years away. Still, a deal announced last week shows the company is already preparing for the next phase of its aviation journey—autonomous flights.


Self-flying eVTOLs could make transportation cleaner, quieter, safer and more affordable, proponents say.

Joby is buying the autonomy division of California-based Xwing, an aviation startup that’s been developing autonomous flying technology since 2016. The terms of the deal, which involved an undisclosed amount of Joby stock, were not released.

Xwing’s expertise in perception technology, system integration and certification could help Joby with both its near-term piloted operations, as well as its long-term plans for autonomous air taxis.

Plus, it could help Joby expand business with its largest customer—the U.S. Defense Department, which is eyeing eVTOLs and autonomy for more efficient logistics and safer missions.

Xwing, which has been flying autonomously since 2020, recently showcased its Superpilot software during a U.S. Air Force exercise. A Superpilot-equipped Cessna completed several daily flights, covering around 2,800 miles and landing at eight public and military airports around the country.

Several leading eVTOL startups, including Joby, Archer Aviation, and Lilium, plan to launch air taxi service within a couple of years. Most will begin operating manned flights with pilots in the cockpit, but they plan to eventually fly autonomously (with remote supervision).

Flying car firms partnering with carmakers

eVTOLsare essentially cleaner, quieter helicopters — but they’ll remain a toy for rich business moguls and sports stars unless the industry can mass produce them affordably. With Joby eVTOLs expected to cost well over $1 million, the cheapest flying vehicle at present is the Helix eVTOL with prices starting from $190,000.

That’s why many eVTOL startups are partnering with experienced automakers to help scale up manufacturing. But even if eVTOL makers crank up production, there aren’t enough pilots to fly the aircraft, which is why the industry favors automation.

Self-flying air taxis could also be much safer, says Jon Lovegren, chief of autonomy and airspace integration at another eVTOL company, Wisk Aero.

Commercial airlines have exceptional safety records — a few recent incidents notwithstanding — in part thanks to onboard automation. Automating small planes and air taxis will bring that same level of safety to short-hop trips, Lovegren says.


Hmmm, the eVTOL industry is already talking about autonomous flights, even before they officially launch? This concerns me. And to help get their businesses off the ground (pun intended), and up to economies of scale, they are collaborating with carmakers. I’ve been working in the car industry for over 30 years, and have driven dozens of so-called autonomous, or semi-autonomous vehicles. One thing I’ve learned is that they are fallible. Yes, the technology works most of the time, but it is still not (and I think won’t be for a long time to come!) up to the level of a human driver or pilot. There are places in Tokyo, for example, where a self-driving car will never be able to negotiate—not in my lifetime at least. And I’m sorry to throw water on the ambitious plans of these eVTOL firms, but guys, put your autonomous flight plans on hold for a decade—and in the meantime, please focus on developing safe flying cars WITH human pilots first. 

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