German automotive manufacturer Volkswagen is studying the feasibility of developing a passenger drone in China, joining numerous other automakers interested in the urban air mobility (UAM) market.
“Beyond autonomous driving the concept of vertical mobility could be a next step to take our mobility approach into the future, especially in the technically affine Chinese market,” a Volkswagen spokesperson told eVTOL.com. “Therefore, we are investigating potential concepts and partners in a feasibility study to identify the possibility to industrialize this approach.”
In an discussion between Volkswagen chairman Herbert Diess and China Group CEO Stephan Wöllenstein posted to LinkedIn, Wöllenstein explained he recently had the opportunity to fly in an unmanned aircraft and found it quite fun.
“We’re planning to develop a drone that’s ready to be licensed. That opens the possibility for us to participate in this future market of individual mobility that’s taking place up in the air and not down on the streets,” Wöllenstein said. “One of the companies we’re in touch with regarding this project opened up the chance for me to lift off into 100 meters height and fly controlled about 100 meters. You don’t have a steering stick, you have to trust the people on the steering center not to mess it up. It’s an interesting but exciting feeling.”
“Was it fun?” asked Diess.
“It was fun indeed and I do believe this is a topic we as a Group shouldn’t let out of sight,” Wöllenstein replied.
While automotive manufacturers can bring significant resources and expertise to the urban air mobility industry, as seen with Hyundai’s $1.5 billion investment and Toyota’s partnership with Joby Aviation, successfully building “flying cars” will take more than appreciating a joyride. A “personal drone” concept unveiled recently by General Motors was viewed by many industry experts as impractical and poorly-designed.
If Volkswagen chooses to invest in urban air mobility, however, the automaker’s significant investment in electric vehicles (EVs) — perhaps out of necessity after the company’s emissions scandal decimated its image — could prove a good fit with the right aerospace partner. The company plans to roll out 80 battery-electric vehicles by 2025 and offer electric versions of all its vehicles by 2030.
With China allowing foreign vehicle manufacturers to maintain majority ownership of their operations within the country, unlike most industries, Volkswagen has invested heavily in EV manufacturing and domestic battery production with plans to deliver 1.5 million new-energy vehicles by 2025.
“We took the majority in [JAC Volkswagen] a joint venture producing only electric vehicles, an investment of billions. We took a substantial share of a huge Chinese battery manufacturer [Guoxuan High-tech] and are founding a majority-owned Audi subsidiary,” said Diess on the company’s progress in 2020. “We’re fully using the possibilities and the further opening of China [that is being offered] to us.”
In November, China’s State Council recommended in its nationwide policy review process accelerating the development of regulation to enable UAM and other applications of unmanned aircraft — a suggestion which, if adopted, could make the nation a more attractive near-term investment than other regions of the world.
Entering the Chinese UAM market would place Volkswagen in direct competition with Guangzhou-based EHang, a domestic first-mover that has benefitted from substantial government support. EHang expects its two-seat EH216 aircraft to be certified by the China’s civil aviation authority this year and Chinese reports indicate the company’s type certificate application was accepted last week.
Or perhaps Volkswagen will partner with EHang. Wöllenstein’s joyride in a remotely-piloted vehicle without a steering stick sounds a lot like EHang’s passenger drones that the company says are currently conducting sightseeing flights for tourists in China.