Not many are aware but Geely has been quietly working on a flying car, one that actually fits the description of a flying car, as in a vehicle that not only flies but can also be driven on the road.
The distinction is important because our own Entrepreneur Development Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Redzuan Yusof is still confused between a flying car and an air taxi.
The erroneously described flying car project that the Malaysian government supports is not a flying car but an air taxi - a vertical take-off/landing vehicle that looks more like a giant drone, and can’t be driven on the road.
Anyway back to Geely. Back in November 2017, Geely acquired a little known US-based startup Terrafugia for an undisclosed sum. The flying car startup was founded in 2006 by five MIT graduates.
By 2009, Terrafugia succeeded in building its first working prototype – the Terrafugia Transition. It looks quite ugly, more plane than car, but it works and for Geely, that's all that matters. The Transition is currently in its second iteration.
It can now carry two occupants, with a top speed of 160 km/h, with a range of 640 plus km. More importantly, it complies with both automotive and aviation safety regulations. The model was supposed to be launched this year, but 2020 seems to be more probable.
After Geely acquired Terrafugia, its Chinese parent company has reviewed the project and has since hooked up Terrafugia with CEVT (China Euro Vehicle Technology AB) – the Sweden-based R&D centre shared by Geely Auto Group and Volvo Cars.
The Terrafugia Transition will benefit from Geely/Volvo’s expertise in computer aided engineering analysis, safety systems and CEVT is developing an improved transmission for Terrafugia.
While the Transition is almost ready for the public, that’s not a winning product that Geely is betting on.
Geely Chairman Li Shufu is a firm believer of flying cars, but not in the way that most people imagine it to be. He doesn’t believe that there will be a big market for privately owned flying cars, but sees great potential in flying minitrucks/minibuses.
The logic is easy to understand – flying cars require mini airport-like facilities for take-off and landing, which means that unlike cars, the locations that flying cars can travel to have to be fixed and predictable, which is essentially what buses/trucks do.
Commercial vehicles like buses and trucks are large and slow, and contribute to traffic congestion. So why not use flying vehicles to pick-up/drop-off cargo, driven autonomously by artificial intelligence (AI)?
Air traffic is more predictable than road traffic (what is a plane going to knock in to?) and developing AI to control a plane is a lot easier than developing a driverless car.
Terrafugia’s next project, the TF-2 is one such concept. The idea is that a bus/truck will pick up passengers/cargo, which will then drive to a mini-airport to dock into a flying module, which then takes off vertically like a helicopter, thus doing away with the need for a lengthy runaway.
The TF-2 is expected to be commercialized sometime around 2023.
But Terrafugia is not the only flying car company that Geely owns. Earlier in September, Geely purchased a small stake in the Daimler and Intel-backed German air taxi start-up Volocopter.
Unlike Terrafugia’s products, Volocopter is envisioned purely as an air taxi and Geely hopes to introduce the service to China once the product and regulatory framework to support such a service is ready.
Seems like Geely wants to cover all the bases on urban air mobility.
By the way, Geely is also working with China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp to develop supersonic maglev trains that can travel up to 1,000 km/h (yes, one thousand kilometres per hour). The fastest Chinese trains now run at about 350 km/h.
Not only that, it is also working with Tencent to develop mobile Internet technologies that can work on supersonic trains. Regular cellular/wifi signals can’t keep up with you if you are moving at 1,000 km/h.
The automotive industry probably has another 25 more years to go before it comes redundant and Geely knows that. Some call it a "once in a hundred years revolution"
Like many other big name automotive players, Geely is thinking beyond cars. It is transforming itself from a mere car company into a technology mobility group.