Will Passenger Drones & Flying Cars Disrupt the Tyre Industry?

So I have to start with a big ‘thank you’ to everyone for your comments and questions on my article, ‘Who Will Disrupt the Tyre Industry?’. Most of the questions and comments were focused around drone technology and flying cars. Since I was asked by many of you to write further on this topic I thought I would oblige and write an article on some of the developments in this emerging technology. Now, to the main question that you all asked me – will drones and flying cars disrupt the tyre industry out of existence?

Well simply put – I don’t think so! Although I think that this emerging technology will undoubtedly bring massive incremental changes, these changes will be innovative rather than disruptive. And to understand why it won’t be the disruptive force that many people imagine, we first need to look at the technology itself.

If you happened to have read some of the recent headlines in the world’s media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re all going to be travelling about in flying cars and that the skies are going to be full of passenger drones by this time next year! In the US, we read that Uber have just hired an engineer from NASA to lead their flying car project, while in the Middle East, The Roads and Transport Authority in Dubai in collaboration with the Chinese company Ehang, are due to launch an autonomous passenger drone in Dubai this coming summer. And let’s not forget Airbus who aim to have their flying car prototype ready by the end of the year. So there is clearly a lot of innovation happening within our industry and companies looking to collaborate with one another, but such stories can be misleading in the sense that they can make it appear as though this emerging technology is much further along in development than it actually is.

To get a more realistic sense of both the strengths and limitations of this technology, we need look no further than the recent collaboration between Matternet and Mercedes-Benz, who have utilised both drone and van technology create the Vision Van. So “M and M” have equipped self-driving vans with drone delivery systems, so the van does most of the journey and the drone acts as a ‘last-mile solution’. Whilst this is rather innovative it also serves to highlight the biggest problem currently facing the drone industry. Because although drones are brilliant for getting to inaccessible areas, they simply don’t have the power capacity to travel across long distances without running out of charge and dropping right out of the sky, which is a pretty major drawback! So “M and M” have created an elegant workaround to a problem but not really disrupted anything. When they solve the battery problem, that’s when things will get interesting!

The other important factor to consider is regulation. Implementing safety regulations and building flying car and passenger drone transportation routes in the sky isn’t one of those things that simply happens overnight. The logistics of creating a system that is safe and efficient enough to convince people to abandon their traditional cars in favour of a flying equivalent is complex to say the very least. In fact Elon Musk is worried about people not maintaining their flying cars well and hub caps falling out of the sky and killing people. So that futuristic ‘Jetson’s-like’ world of drones and flying cars that many of us have been envisioning is unlikely to become a reality for a while now, by which time we may have discovered an even better way to travel.

How can I be certain of this? I know that we’re not even close to seeing drones and flying cars become the everyday norm because of what I see happening in the tech startups that we invest in through our venture capital fund, Walpole Capital. Whilst I see great innovation happening, we are nowhere near close to solving the battery problem or implementing the regulations and safety measures that are necessary to make this technology a dominant commercial force within our industry. In fact, even the engineers from NASA are yet to find a solution to these problems! Although the way things are today with the NASA bureaucracy it will be that 14 year old I mentioned in my last article that will beat them to it!

So tyres aren’t going anywhere soon! But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep abreast of all the developments in flying car and drone technology so that we know who to partner and collaborate with. Because as we’ve seen from the partnership between “M and M” progressive incremental changes within our industry are inevitable and happening as we speak. And by collaborating with other companies, we can be involved in defining those changes rather than risk being left behind by them, and ultimately in the long-term our industry can only gain and be bolstered by this. We need to stop this fear in our industry of change and see new technology as the opportunity for progression and innovation that it is. And who knows the more we innovate perhaps the less we are likely to get disrupted!