Airbus Ventures backs flying cars: Interview with Thomas d’Halluin
This is the second in a series of articles published ahead of a debate I’m moderating between François Auque of Airbus Ventures and Jason Ball of Qualcomm Ventures at the GCV Symposium in London on the future of urban and inter-urban transportation.
The articles will be combined in a special Global Corporate Venturing report on venturing activity across the gamut of technologies and business models that are advancing “urban air mobility”, a phrase I first heard from François Auque’s California-based colleague Thomas d’Halluin, who runs Airbus Ventures’ US office.
Please contact me if you’d also like to participate in the symposium and/or contribute to the report.
Back in January, I was sipping Pinot Noir in the Californian winter sun with Thomas d’Halluin, CEO of Airbus Ventures’ US office, at GCV’s Sonoma summit – my work does come with some perks – when my phone beeped to remind me that I had to pick up my daughter from school in London. Thankfully, I had already made alternative arrangements, so I had nothing to worry about. But it got me thinking.
“One day,” I said to d’Halluin, “I will be able to send an autonomous vehicle to collect her.” Having just moderated a discussion on the future of mobility with energy company BP and auto manufacturers Denso and Magna, I was feeling bullish about the prospects for city-based autonomous vehicles.
D’Halluin immediately replied, “In fact, she will almost certainly be safer in a flying car.” Initially, this struck me as a bold statement. But d’Halluin set out a confident and well-argued view of the future of “urban air mobility”, which will indeed include safe flying vehicles, and sooner than we think.
Trained as an aerospace engineer, d’Halluin worked for Airbus in manufacturing, procurement, supply chain and finance roles throughout Europe and China before leading their venture practice in Silicon Valley. Our conversation appears below.
Could you first say what you mean by “urban air mobility”?
Urban Air Mobility is the phrase we use to frame a fast-emerging ecosystem, a system that is needed to directly address the challenges of megacities’ explosive growth and congestion. Urban Air Mobility includes not just the flying machines themselves, but the interactions between the flying machines, and between the ground and the flying space – all that encompasses the communications, air traffic management and needed energy infrastructure. It is also as much about the software as it is the hardware, and it touches a span of diverse industry verticals.
Please define a flying car.
For me, a flying car is something that must be safer, cleaner, and more convenient than your ground-crawler, something that responsibly liberates your working and personal life, something that fulfils our earliest dreams of flight. It is a big ask, but we are in the midst of technological and manufacturing revolutions that finally make it possible.
I see a flying car as a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) electric aircraft: it has to take off and land vertically, like a helicopter, to cope with the urban dynamic; it has to be electric, offering both a cleaner and quieter solution; for convenience and to ensure the most widespread adoption, it should not require a pilot’s license and should free you to enjoy the ride and the extra time it affords – and therefore must be fully autonomous.
And you believe that autonomous flying cars will be a superior solution for urban mobility than ground-based autonomous vehicles?
“Superior” is not quite the right word. I certainly believe that flying cars will play a major role in solving urban mobility problems, not because they are necessarily superior, but because I think they have a faster and clearer route to market than autonomous ground vehicles – they can literally occupy a new and barely used volume of space, and thereby pioneer the positive change in urban dynamics that all autonomous vehicles bring.
Can you expand on this?
I will start with a simple observation. On the ground, the self-driving car is operating in an over-utilised and very unpredictable environment in which it has to make many decisions very quickly. But an autonomous VTOL electric aircraft is operating in an under-utilised environment, the sky. There will be birds to avoid and a few drones, but low altitude space is actually quite free and available. Normally planes are flying at a much higher altitude. So this completely changes the perspective in terms of managing and organising traffic. We have the technology to do geo-fencing and air traffic management to make flying cars a reality very soon.
How soon is “soon”?
I believe that flying cars will shake their way into society’s urban landscape and consciousness no later than autonomous ground vehicles, and for their safety advantages, flying cars are in fact likely to arrive on the scene first; it will soon be as easy to order a flying car as an autonomous ground car currently in trials – I estimate roughly in a few years.
To me, it seems counter-intuitive that an autonomous flying vehicle is safer than one that is on the ground.
But you have to recognise how much autonomy, how much autonomous functionality, has already been deployed in the mainstream aviation industry. We are far ahead of the automotive industry. If you speak to pilots of real-world traditional airlines today, they will tell you that most of the flight has already been fully autonomous for decades. It is only in take-off and landing where human pilots are required (and not always, by the way).
By contrast, autonomous driving on the ground in real-world environments is very new indeed. I am not talking about autonomous driving in a controlled environment, like a park, like a Disneyland, where you can create safe corridors and routes. I am talking about the real world of congested modern cities, when, for example, a kid is chasing a ball across a street and an autonomous vehicle has to respond. A kid is not going to be running across the sky.
So the next time I step on to a commercial airline I should recognise I will be travelling by autonomous or at least semi-autonomous vehicle?
And you believe that it is easier to create safe corridors and routes for autonomous vehicles in the sky than on the ground?
Yes, the artificial intelligence (AI) required for autonomous flying cars is easier to achieve than it is for ground-based autonomous vehicles. The AI component is the true brain of a vehicle, which when coupled with machine learning determines the speed at which decisions can be made. In a very crowded and unpredictable environment such as inner city streets, the capability of AI needs to be extremely high. I am not sure we are there yet. But in an under-utilised environment like the sky, today’s AI is already able to cope.
What are the gaps that need to be filled for flying cars to get to market quickly and how is your investment strategy filling them?
I would not describe our investment strategy as filling gaps. We are looking to invest in businesses that advance the Urban Air Mobility ecosystem. For example, our recent investment in AirMap will advance safety in low altitude flying between drone, airport and aircraft. As well as investing, as with all our portfolio companies we will also support their interactions with the others under our wing, to discover new partnering and business opportunities.
We have also invested in a LiDAR technology business, which we will soon be disclosing. LiDAR is a form of sensor, which enables greater vision for vehicles on the ground and in the air. It is this vision which enables vehicles to make the decisions they need to make to get us from A to B. Energy management and the battery question are also of critical importance to us. There is still room for progress and improvement there. Today we have the energy technology for a 1-4 seater VTOL electric aircraft, but to scale to 50-100 seats, that is in a different league. Companies that will help us play in this league are of great interest to us and we are monitoring them very closely.
Your interests in sensors and batteries are shared by investors in autonomous vehicles.
Yes, of course. I believe there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between both ecosystems because the underlying technologies are very similar. Flying cars and ground-based autonomous vehicles both require advances in AI, sensors, sense-and-avoid systems, batteries, electric propulsion and power management, as well as in energy density, etc.
So getting back to the question – “Flying Cars vs Autonomous Ground-based Vehicles – which will win the race to dominate urban mobility?” – what are your final thoughts?
First, I look forward to the debate. Second, I do not believe that this is a winner-takes-all market. It is not one or the other. I think that flying cars have a faster and clearer route to market, but I believe there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between both ecosystems. Technology commercialised on the ground will be good for the air, and vice versa. In fact, I believe that eventually we’ll see a merging of autonomous vehicles on the ground and in the air. We need to be able to self-drive to an area where you can take off.
That is actually the ultimate model of urban mobility. My final thought is that flight has always fascinated and attracted the most audacious and ambitious pioneers, who dream and who turn their dreams into reality. They want to prove that what is theoretically possible is actually practically and physically also possible. This is the story of aviation from the first days of the Wright brothers, and today’s new era of VTOL electric aircraft is no exception.