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General Motors’ future lineup will include flying cars


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Engineer Sanjay Dhall is building a flying car in suburban Detroit and hopes to test-fly it next summer.
John Gallagher, Detrot Free Press

General Motors has yet to deploy self-driving cars, but it’s already talking flying cars.

GM has had conversations with “air taxi” companies about using the carmaker’s autonomous and electric vehicle technology to create flying cars, Mike Abelson, GM’s vice president of global strategy, said Thursday at the FT Future of the Car Summit USA in Detroit. 

“There will be some sort of air transport that will get integrated with this AV/EV technology,” said Abelson.

The idea isn’t that far-fetched given that Detroit-area industrial engineer Sanjay Dhall has already built a prototype, which he’s yet to test. Some companies are building and testing flying cars, including Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce. 

But given the complexity to design, engineer and produce flying cars en masse, Abelson acknowledged, “It’s some years away” before widespread production and sales of such a vehicle get off the ground.

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Abelson spoke on GM’s vision for its future vehicle lineup at FT’s summit. He said consumers can expect 20 new all-electric GM vehicles in the next five years. GM will also deploy a fleet of self-driving electric cars as part of a ride-sharing platform in a major U.S. city next year.

Despite those advancements, GM’s gasoline-powered cars and trucks will be the main revenue stream for the company for at least the next two decades, he said.

Electric pickups?

While electric vehicles sales are a small part of GM’s business, Abelson said, “EV adoption isn’t optional, it’s mandatory” going forward, Abelson said. 

More: GM proposes nationwide zero-emissions vehicle sales mandate

“The rest of the world is moving aggressively towards EVs,” he said. Also, GM has asked the federal government for one national gas mileage standard, including a requirement that a percentage of auto companies’ sales be zero-emissions vehicles.

Abelson said new battery technology allows electric vehicles to travel longer ranges — in the Chevrolet Bolt’s case 238 miles — without having to recharge. And the battery cost has declined, making it now affordable for many.

For those reasons, he said buyer demand for the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt is expected to rise. GM will increase production of the Bolt, built at its Orion Assembly Plant, by 20 percent this quarter compared with the average of the first three quarters to meet rising global demand for the car, he said. Chevrolet launched the Bolt in December 2016. Since then, through the end of the third quarter, GM has sold 35,683 Bolts in the U.S., a Chevrolet spokeswoman said. 

“We do believe we’ll lead the industry in EVs sometime in the next decade or so,” Abelson said.

Still, it will be a long time before AV/EV sales have a significant impact on GM’s main business: Building and selling gasoline vehicles. 

“The core business is going to be the core business for a couple of decades to come,” said Abelson. “There will not be any AV/EV pickups.”

Flying cars

But the far future might be a different story.

Abelson’s boss, GM CEO Mary Barra, told Harvard University students in September that GM has given a “tiny bit” of thought to producing an electric pickup truck some day.

More: General Motor’s CEO Mary Barra goes to Harvard to bring in new hires

GM has spent more than $1 billion this year investing in autonomous vehicle technology, said Abelson. It has not shared a projected investment for 2019 yet. But given the sizable spend, GM is exploring all fronts in future mobility, including talking to companies working on flying cars.

GM spokeswoman Megan Soule declined to comment on the depth of GM’s conversations with air taxi companies or if there is a prototype or timeline to develop a flying car. GM has “nothing to share at this time as we don’t discuss future product and as Mike noted, anything we might be working on would be years away.”

Neither Ford Motor Co. nor Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has said publicly they are talking about this.

It’s not as far-out there as it sounds. Terrafugia, a Chinese-owned company based in Massachusetts, is taking presale orders for its two-seat “roadable” aircraft called the Transition. The Transition can switch between driving and flying modes in less than a minute, the company said. Deliveries of the aircraft would begin next year, it said, but no price has been revealed yet.

Flying in a car would face significant regulatory hurdles. 

Still, others are developing flying cars, such as, the Volante Vision Concept by Aston Martin, which is an autonomous hybrid-electric vehicle capable of vertical takeoffs and landings. Kitty Hawk is a startup company backed by Google co-founder Larry Page.

In February, Airbus said its self-piloted, full-scale aircraft, the Vahana, climbed 16 feet and in 53 seconds it returned successfully to the ground. It’s since made another short flight. The 20.3 foot-long and 18.7-foot wide Vahana is designed to take off and land vertically in a small area.

Uber also plans to create a network of flying taxis in Dubai and the Dallas area by 2020, reports say. Also, jet engine maker Rolls-Royce said its vehicle could be airborne in 2020 and carry five passengers at speeds of 250 mph for approximately 500 miles.

Contact Jamie L. LaReau at 313-222-2149 or jlareau@freepress.com

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