A European startup aims to launch the world’s first flying car in two years’ time. It now needs to work out a distribution strategy.

[SXSW] Cars Flying across European Skies by 2017?

During the last few months the future of the automobile has been taking shape in the United States, mainly in Silicon Valley. Ford has just set up an innovation laboratory there with the aim of studying how people will be moving around in the future. A driverless Audi A6 travelled across California in December after the four-ring brand received the green light from the Californian authorities to carry out this large-scale test. Tim Cook has just announced that Apple is also taking a serious interest in the automobile sector and meanwhile the progress of Google’s self-driving Google Car has remained in the news for several months. However, it may turn out that the future of the industry is actually being invented right now in Europe. 

In March, Bratislava, Slovakia-based startup AeroMobil unveiled a prototype for a flying car at the South by Southwest (SXSW ) event – the major interactive technologies fair, which takes place every year in Austin, Texas. "We’re convinced that a revolution is taking place in personal transport," declared Juraj Vaculik, AeroMobil co-founder and CEO. He argues that the world’s major cities have now reached their limits in terms of road infrastructure. This is both because the world’s population is becoming increasing urban, and because of demand. "More cars will be manufactured in the next 20 years than in the whole history of the industry up to now," predicted Vaculik. Lack of infrastructure in emerging countries will also add to the debate on how people will be moving around in the future. "Only 3% of the world’s surface has road infrastructure and only 57% of all existing roads are paved," he told the SXSW audience.

Finalising the 4.0 model

The solution? "Move ‘mobility’ from two dimensions to three," suggests Juraj Vaculik. This idea is not really new. In 1940, Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, explained that "a combination of a car and a plane is on its way. You may laugh, but it will happen." Over half a century later, the idea still makes people smile. However, at SXSW, the  mood of the audience – standing room only – went from amusement to astonishment as the CEO presented his far-out project, showing a video of his prototype, which switched in real time from driving along the highway to flying in the sky. So the concept seems to work from a technological point of view. Vaculik is now planning to bring his flying cars to market sooner rather than later.

"We’re currently hiring a lot more staff. Four years ago there were two of us, we’re now 12 and we aim to reach 40 to 50 by the end of the year. Our aim is to build up the firm in terms of technical and commercial skills. At SXSW we announced the set-up of our advisory board; we’ve appointed Anthony Sheriff, former CEO of McLaren, Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, and Glenn Mercer, a former partner at McKinsey responsible for the auto sector," Juraj Vaculik told L’Atelier. This move to strengthen the team is intended to enable completion of a pre-production model to be called, in the spirit of the software industry, ‘4.0’. Added Vaculik: "We’ll also be able to set up our logistics chain and obtain the final certification we need from the automobile and aviation sectors. We’re working closely with the European Commission on this".

AeroMobil set to become the "European Tesla"?

Having drawn considerable inspiration from electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, AeroMobil is now looking to build a strong brand image with a view to attracting the right customers and generating sufficient revenue. "Our strategy is simple,” explained Vaculik, “we’re targeting the ‘happy few’ who are looking for an ultra-luxury, innovative product. So we’re clearly in a niche market somewhere between luxury ‘supercars’ [e.g. Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, etc – ed] and up-market aviation. We’ll sell limited editions of our vehicles, to order. Our target is fairly modest; just a few hundred units a year. We’re going to build up our brand in this niche, but we’re also thinking about the next generation. With this in mind, we’re particularly interested in the sharing economy and the kind of initiatives being undertaken by players such as Uber and Lyft. Customers could for example use their mobile device to book one of our vehicles for a limited period of time," suggests the AeroMobil CEO.  However this idea gives few clues as to his distribution strategy. Will AeroMobil forge partnerships with automobile distribution networks? Or create its own sales structure? Work through an e-commerce channel perhaps? It seems as though the co-founders have not yet decided. "We’re looking at our go-to-market strategy. Our Board members will be able to contribute their auto industry experience and with their help we’ll be making a decision on our strategy by the end of the year," revealed Vaculik.

Juraj Vaculik and Stefan Vadocz, respectively CEO and Communications Director of AeroMobil, at SXSW, March 2015

So, given that AeroMobil aspires to shake up the traditional automobile sector, does Vaculik compare himself with the founder of Tesla, whose company is already revolutionising the auto industry? "I admire the man,” he admits, “because he has succeeded in convincing people of his ideas and giving real long-term meaning to them. He has managed to create a powerful brand – a real game-changer.” However, in this sector as in many other industries, "innovation is now coming from outside the auto manufacturers. They are looking to give their vehicles a facelift, this is a matter of gradual evolution. But we’re in the business of revolution, it’s in our DNA. We want to bring something really new to the market." Of course, funding will be key to assuring the long-term existence of AeroMobil. It is a private company, and does not wish to give out information on how much it has spent since the initial idea emerged. "However, in a few weeks we should be announcing series A funding from major European venture capital firms. We’re also in discussion with US and Asian investors as we want to create an international brand,” underlined Jurai Vaculik.

By Romain Chapron