Weekly Brief: Chinese Blimp Downing Raises Issues over Flying Cars

The US military shot down a suspected Chinese spy blimp off the coast of South Carolina.

The Chinese government argued that the blimp was a misguided weather balloon “for civilian use” and that it “entered the US due to force majeure – it was completely an accident”. President Biden didn’t buy it and ordered the military intervention.

The incident is a reminder of how contentious airborne objects can be, especially in an era when military drones maraud over foreign lands and consumer drones hum over parks, athletic stadiums, residential neighborhoods and dense city streets. Where flying objects can and can’t go and what they’re up to is going to be an issue of growing importance in the 21st century. Flying cars will likely be part of that debate.

Last week Chinese electric vehicle start-up Xpeng became the first company to receive a permit to operate its electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicle in Chinese airspace. Xpeng has an eVTOL division called AeroHT that plans to start mass-producing an eVTOL called the X2 in 2024. AeroHT says the X2 will be capable of autonomous flight and designates it a “flying car”, although the first generation lacks wheels and will be used essentially like an electric helicopter. The long-range vision is for a car that can drive city streets and take flight whenever it wants.

Xpeng has its sights set on a European expansion and potentially a North American presence after that. Last week the company introduced two of its best-selling and range-topping EV models in Europe, the G9 and P7. If the X2 eVTOL makes it to mass market in China, you can bet Xpeng will look to take it to the skies in Europe and North America as well.

It will have competition. At CES this year, carmaker Stellantis announced plans to expand its relationship with eVTOL startup Archer with the intention of mass marketing Archer’s flagship eVTOL aircraft Midnight in 2024. Stellantis is working with Archer to get its new manufacturing facility in Covington, Georgia up and running this year. With a range of 100 miles, Midnight is capable of carrying four passengers plus a pilot and is optimized for back-to-back short distance trips of around 20 miles, with a charging time of approximately 10 minutes in-between.

In other news last week, Elon Musk was found not guilty in a class action lawsuit alleging security fraud. The trial determined that Musk did not owe shareholders damages for tweeting that he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private back in 2018. The prosecution argued that the tweet prompted some shareholders to sell their stake in the company before it mounted an historic rise to the first trillion-dollar carmaker. The jury in San Francisco decided unanimously that Musk was not at fault.

General Motors will make a $650M investment in Lithium Americas to help develop the Thacker Pass mine in Nevada, which represents the largest-ever investment by an automaker to produce battery raw materials. Lithium Americas estimates the lithium extracted and processed from the project can support production of up to one million EVs per year. Thacker Pass is the largest known source of lithium in the US and the third largest in the world.

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