Xpeng Motors, one of China’s leading electric vehicle (EVs) makers, made headlines recently when it released details about a flying car it had produced, capable of driving both on roads and in the air, scheduled to enter mass production in 2024. Despite the hype surrounding the announcement, the goal will prove challenging.
Any EV firm aiming to carry out the ambitious transition from land to sky travel faces a series of daunting obstacles, including technological development, ensuring safety for passengers and increasing pressure from regulators. Possibly alleviating the burden, however, are ongoing advancements in the field of batteries that may eventually help to improve energy efficiency and drive down costs of flying cars.
Chao-Yang Wang, an engineering professor at Penn State and renowned battery engineering expert, said on Saturday via video at the Tencent Science WE Summit that “we must have high-energy-density fast-charging batteries to make flying cars a reality. The current estimate is around 2025.”
Starting in 2013, the WE Summit provides an annual forum for the world’s top scientists to discuss the latest breakthroughs in their field, hosted by Chinese internet technology giant Tencent.
When asked by Pandaily how the society-wide adoption of this groundbreaking technology might take place, Professor Wang predicted that the new products are likely to be manifested first in various commercial taxi fleets rather than private vehicles. “For example,” Wang said, “in Shanghai, from the city center to the airport, such a service could guarantee to deliver you in 10-15 minutes.”
Among the cutting-edge developments to occur in the industry recently is a shift in interest towards sodium-ion batteries, which are generally more energy-dense than their traditional lithium-ion cousins. Furthermore, sodium is far more abundant and accessible than lithium, making sodium-ion batteries a cost-effective alternative.
China’s leading battery manufacturer CATL, also a supplier of several major global EV firms including Tesla and VW, has recently made strides in this regard after unveiling its delf-developed sodium-ion battery earlier this year.
During the Saturday forum, Wang also mentioned that his research team has been working to develop batteries with a higher performance in cold weather scenarios, adding that various all-weather batteries are already available in the market, such as in BMW products. “The market is the only criterion for testing science and technology,” Wang said, suggesting that companies and scientific research institutions around the world still have a lot of work to do before fast-charging and cost-effective EV batteries can become a reality.
Seen as the next frontier of local travel, flying cars have been generating more and more interest in capital markets lately. HT Aero, Xpeng’s air vehicle subsidiary, raised $500 million in October, reportedly the largest fundraising round in Asia’s flying car sector so far.
The technology undoubtedly has a long and difficult road ahead, but the current fixation on its continuing development appears unlikely to waver. “Private flying cars – like Harry Potter flying on a broomstick – are the dream of humanity,” said Wang.