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[Adam Minter] China gives flying cars real boost

For nearly two decades, Shanghai’s spindly skyline has inspired comparisons to the dystopian Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s futurist-noir film “Blade Runner.” There’s wild architecture, giant video billboards and horizon-obscuring smog. The only things missing are the flying cars zipping between buildings.

That may soon change. This week, China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group acquired Terrafugia, a Boston-based company that plans to start selling flying cars by 2019. It’s the most prominent Chinese investment yet in an industry that’s attracting the talent and capital of some of the world’s most prominent entrepreneurs and investors. And it marks an important advance for a technology that could reshape the 21st-century city.

Flying cars have been just around the corner since at least 1924, when Popular Science published an article headlined “Flying Autos in 20 Years.” But thanks to recent advances in lightweight materials, batteries and autonomous-vehicle software, they’re now coming much closer to reality.

Most of the vehicles under development resemble small aircraft more than Honda Civics: They’re electric-powered, largely autonomous and only touch the road to take off and land. Some will function much like private helicopters -- ferrying the rich around -- while others will be more like next-generation taxis or buses. In theory, such vehicles could one day reduce pollution, ease urban gridlock, take pressure off of overburdened transit systems and make commuting a breeze.

It’s no wonder that investment is pouring into the field. Companies including Uber and Airbus are developing prototypes. Alphabet’s Larry Page is so enthusiastic that he started two competing flying-car companies. Earlier this month, Uber announced a partnership with NASA to launch flying taxis in Los Angeles by 2020. Governments are funding research into the vehicles, while regulators are thinking of ways to integrate them into existing networks.

So far, though, China has been notably absent from this competition, for a few reasons.

One is a longstanding aversion to research spending that doesn’t have a clear payoff. As recently as 2012, 84 percent of China’s research and development spending went to product development, compared to 35 to 65 percent in wealthier economies. Basic research -- the speculative kind that might lead to entirely new fields -- is relatively underdeveloped. That’s slowly starting to change. But for now, China remains a developing country with plenty of more prosaic needs.

A second holdup is regulation. As much as four-fifths of China’s airspace is controlled by the military, causing serious delays and congestion in one of the world’s fastest-growing aviation markets. Swarms of flying cars intruding into those crowded skies would be unwelcome both to commercial airlines -- which are struggling to acquire more space for themselves -- and to the military.

Finally, flying cars probably wouldn’t make a dent in China’s horrendous urban traffic any time soon. At first, they’d largely appeal to rich people who could afford personal vehicles that might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although more practical ideas -- such as air taxis -- are on the horizon, they’d be out of step with China’s current urbanization efforts, which emphasize mass transit and “last-mile” transport, and hence might not appeal to government planners.

Despite these challenges, China shouldn’t allow itself to be left behind. It’s already investing in technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics on a large scale, while making innovation an explicit goal of public policy. Funding basic research into flying cars would be a logical extension of those efforts. If successful, the vehicles could one day have substantial benefits for the environment, urban design, quality of life, productivity and economic growth. Even if they fail commercially, the research effort could inspire other innovations, in fields ranging from materials science to battery technology to autonomous driving.

And that could pay outsized dividends -- both for China and the world. China’s burgeoning middle class is already shaping the future of the automobile. Its inventors and bureaucrats will have a major influence over what 21st-century transport systems look like. In that sense, Geely’s purchase of Terrafugia is a big step in the right direction. “Blade Runner” was set in Los Angeles, but the future of transportation will very likely be shaped in Shanghai.

By Adam Minter

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.