Why I like Dorothee Bär … on flying taxis and the digitisation of mobility

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Kai Gondlach

There are these topics that, as a futurologist, you would rather be spared. Too exhausted are forecasts that never arrived, a too high risk of potential implausibility is associated with it. That’s why we scientific futurologists analyze concrete, real existing drivers instead of nice ideas and possible utopias. Since I have been active in futurology, I have been repeatedly met with failures of the presumed prophets, visionaries, dreamers as a benchmark of my theses, because even in our relatively small industry there is already something like clan-like. One of the long-running burners: “When are there finally flying cars?” or in the political talk: Is the CSU Minister of State for Digital Dorothee Bear a baseless seer? Maybe, but the discussion has several levels. Away from power-political and legal aspects, however, I would like to focus on the two really important ones: how realistic is the vision of flying cars and what does digitalisation have to do with it?

1. Flying cars become reality, very soon!

As described at the beginning, I have personally been extremely sceptical about the issue of flying cars. For various reasons (price, regulation, technology, reach, financing) it was not enough to make a breakthrough.

However, the list of current projects and the financial resources that will be used to develop them is getting longer and longer. A few examples:

  • PAL-V (Personal Air- and Land-Vehicle) from the Netherlands. The occupant currently needs a ticket to control it, which means that the flight vehicle remains rather something for the luxury segment.
  • Starup Lilium, which was founded in Germany, wants to launch an electronically operated flying car very soon and make it available at the taxi fare with a smart app on demand. Range: 300 km, Speed: 300 km/h. In fact, there are other projects in this country that are only waiting for the airspace to be released, but unfortunately they are not yet ready for approval.
  • Ehang from China has developed a series-ready flight taxi, which already operated the first flights in Dubai in 2017. The flying car, which has a person and a briefcase of approx. 50 km, remotely controlled from the ground. In the near future, however, the flying taxis will be able to fly passengers over city traffic stress-free as autonomous drones.
  • For the time being, the aviation giant Airbus is the last, powerful player in this incomplete list. The Vahana project has been working on a flying car for several years, which made its maiden flight in the first quarter of 2018. With such financial backing, it is not difficult to imagine that road traffic will soon be moved into the air a few floors.

In view of these developments and the ongoing efforts to open up medium airspace to private aviation and drone traffic, I have for some time at last dared to seriously consider the implications and effects of flying cars. At last!

2. Digitisation is not the same as broadband internet

Back to Dorothee Bear. Unfortunately, she was heavily criticized in the public debate by saying that she wants to push ahead with digitization in Germany in the current legislature and that flying taxis are also on her agenda, to put it mildly. This moment was the first moment in a long time in which not only futurologists like me breathed a safest and longed for an end to the chronic lack of vision of German politics. For visions have an uncanny power to shape the future: they mobilize comrades-in-arms and financiers, translate ideas into plans, and break taboos that otherwise cement dangerous gridlock and convenience. Dorothee Bär has been the first German leader to publicly demonstrate that she has understood the basic mechanism of digitization. Digitalization does not only mean broadband and smart smartphones, digitalization also takes place a few floors up. In this case: in the air.

Digitisation is above all the usefulness that arises when invisible data transmission makes life easier for people. In addition to cat videos on Youtube, endless, freely accessible knowledge bases such as Wikipedia or the diagnosis of rare diseases, this also includes traffic and total mobility. Without the current state of digitalization, flying taxis would still be utopias today. But they are not. Without the technologically driven dynamics of digitalization, it would not be possible today to bring vehicles from common materials with electric motors into the air in a stable manner. Once again, the increasingly powerful computer chips play an important role – both in the vehicle itself and in the organisation of the individual vehicles as well as in materials research. Perhaps we will soon be relying #neuland and embarking on the digitized era.

3. Innovation logic of the digital era

Jules Verne was not the first to say: “Everything a human being can imagine will one day be a reality.” However, this does not happen on its own. Criticism of capitalism, the existing global economic system has laid the historical foundation for providing capital to imaginative people with promising business models and to changing the world. Investments determine the realisation of visionary ideas – what sounds trivial has not yet fully arrived in Germany. This is despite the fact that many capable innovators such as Peter Thiel or Dirk Ahlborn from Germany in other parts of the world are making their ideas a reality. Our system is deliberately designed to be counter-innovative – or counter-disruptive, because we master incremental innovation very well here.

But too few risk investors dare to subsidize risky ideas, and in the event of funding, the sums rarely secure more than the first year. In this first, so important year, the corporate culture is emerging in the young start-ups … and zack – the traditional German mentality of saving and waiting has already been implanted. Yet German companies and corporations are sitting on accumulated trillions of dollars in reserves that are just waiting to change the world! But “one” prefers to wait leisurely, optimize processes that have existed over decades and complain that the train and flight are too late. Instead of looking for fundamentally different solutions! Somehow this causal chain seems schizophrenic … and it leads to a vicious circle at the end.

Whoever says A must also say B

Dear Dorothee Bear, if you are really serious about your digital vision, break a lance for all the motivated founders. Get the private funding landscape to take more risk and invest more money in potential startups. Otherwise, in ten years’ time, everyone will complain that the German mobility companies have been disempowered by China, Silicon Valley and Qatar. In retrospect, we will be able to make the painful diagnosis that we ourselves were to blame. Then we finally have another reason to complain. I wish you and your colleagues every success in this.

So I ask you, dear public, doubters and opponents of progress, for a favor: think occasionally in opportunities rather than impossibility, think “yes, and!” instead of “yes, but”, but please at least do not stand in the way of those who have their put visions into practice.

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