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The Ford Mach I Levacar, 1959. It never went into production. Photo: Archive Photos/Getty

Carmakers are in a frantic race to own the driverless road. But a little-noticed parallel contest is under way in the world of autonomous vehicles — a competition for who will dominate a shift of motor traffic from the road to the air.

Why it matters: The competition to control the air could more profoundly impact how we live and work, with the potential to change the face of cities, how we measure time, and what we regard as our activity space.

"Jetsons" has become a catch-all metaphor for almost any futuristic vision, but Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, in an interview today with Axios, painted a picture very much resembling the 1960s cartoon.

  • In January, Boeing flew a prototype of its small pilotless vehicle. In the early part of the next decade, Muilenburg said he expects to deploy such vehicles commercially in rural areas along fixed routes.
  • And then, in just a decade, he said, the skies in U.S. cities will be filled with electric, autonomous flying vehicles, ferrying people to their destination and averting roads that today are often impossibly congested.
"We will see cities like Washington, DC with three-dimensional traffic patterns instead of two-dimensional."
— Dennis Muilenburg

Reality check: There is no telling whether this future will materialize like Muilenburg and others forecast. For one thing, no one knows whether masses of people want to fly in taxis, or whether a multitude of logistical and regulatory hurdles can be crossed.

  • But if it does happen as predicted, cities will utterly change, requiring ways to charge, direct and facilitate such transportation. Housing will adapt to accommodate flying taxis.

This is a much faster timetable than the widespread deployment of fully autonomous cars — which are expected only in the 2030s — because obstacles on the ground are far more complex than those in the air.

What's happening: Boeing, Airbus and Uber are among the largest players in this evolving new industry. There are also numerous small startups in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. One nascent sport is guessing who will be swallowed up first by the big plane-makers.

What's surprising is how fast these vehicles seem likely to become commonplace. Muilenburg said it's all happening now because of a convergence of technological breakthroughs — in autonomous capability, artificial intelligence, lightweight vehicle design, and electric drivetrains.

Venkat Viswanathan, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who advises flying vehicle startups, tells Axios that enormous improvements in lithium-ion batteries are a key enabler of this new age, but that much more progress is required.

  • It's all about the economics: Developers are relying on autonomous electric technology because they cheapen the cost-per-mile operation of such vehicles over internal combustion systems, Viswanathan said.
  • "Having access to a pilot for that number of flying taxis will be nearly impossible," he said.

Currently, Viswanathan said, commercial electric car batteries can last about 1,000 cycles of charging and recharging, enough for hundreds of thousands of miles of driving.

  • But flying passenger vehicles, even if they are for just two people, will require batteries that can endure many thousand more cycles, he said, in order to make the vehicles work economically.
  • That is the next hurdle — developing more durable lithium-ion batteries.

Go deeper: Sky-high hopes for drones tethered to safety concerns

Go deeper

Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults

A vaccination center installed at the Barbara Chapel of St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, Austria. Photo: Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images

Austria's lower house of parliament voted on Thursday in favor of making COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for most adults from next month.

Why it matters: The bill is expected to soon pass the upper house and be signed by President Alexander Van der Bellen in order for the law to take effect Feb. 1, per Reuters. It'd make Austria the first EU nation to impose such a sweeping mandate.

Hope King, author of Closer
Updated 6 hours ago - Economy & Business

Peloton pumps its brakes

Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

Peloton’s popularity is falling as swiftly as it shot up.

Why it matters: Not all pandemic habits stick around. Peloton's trajectory over the past two years exemplifies how challenging it's been for companies to gauge shifts in consumer demand — particularly in sectors heavily altered by the pandemic.

Mitch McConnell's remarks on Black voters raise ire

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell during a Capitol Hill news conference earlier this year. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been widely criticized for comments he made this week about Black American voters.

Driving the news: When asked by a reporter Wednesday about concerns among voters of color, McConnell said "the concern is misplaced, because if you look at the statistics, Black American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans."