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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 underway in the world of autonomous vehicles — a competition for who will dominate a shift of motor traffic from the road to the air, creating multiple new industries worth tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in sales a year.
"The 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.
"We will see cities like Washington, D.C., with three-dimensional traffic patterns instead of two-dimensional."— Dennis Muilenburg, CEO of Boeing
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 may 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.
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.
Writing an ebook, Aurora, Colorado. Photo: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post/Getty
Books are up against the stiffest competition ever for our increasingly wandering eyes and shortening attention. Fortnite, Netflix, Facebook and a bottomless well of news make it hard to get through a chapter of a novel that once would have consumed an afternoon.
Kaveh writes: Buoyed by the success of audiobooks, developers are deploying an array of new tech to pull words off the printed page and capture a generation hooked on whiz-bang entertainment.
Background: Less than one-fifth of Americans read for pleasure on any given day, according to 2018 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
New technologies like ebooks and audiobooks have helped to boost reading as printed book sales slumped. But this has not offset what Steve Potash, CEO of digital book distributor OverDrive, calls an "epidemic of decline in reading books."
Interactivity is the key to pulling people back into reading — especially for younger audiences, Potash says.
What's next, according to Potash:
In the mad dash for the still-tiny slice of top AI talent, companies are competing to beef up increasingly lucrative businesses, doling out sky-high salaries reaching well into six digits, on top of the usual tech office perks.
Spoiler alert: Microsoft is hugely outhiring its peers.
Kaveh writes: We've reported on the distribution of AI talent among companies — concentrated at the top but with a long tail. Now, new research from RS Components, a British electronics maker, shows who's hiring AI people.
Be smart: This analysis is a very rough estimate. Just like Axios job listings don’t typically include the word "journalism," a lot of AI-related jobs might use more specific terms in listings.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
The race to make a lab-grown steak (Niall Firth — MIT Tech Review)
Facebook's next big economic bet (Dion Rabouin — Axios)
The big problem with tiny plastics (Saabira Chaudhuri — WSJ)
Endangered Wall Street bulls (Richard Henderson, Robin Wigglesworth — FT)
The Amazon influence game (Naomi Nix — Bloomberg)
Glued to the screen. Photo: Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
TV is totally passé for Gen Z and millennials, but boomers are keeping the networks alive by spending a shocking amount of time glued to their television sets.
Erica writes: Americans over the age of 65 spend nearly 4.5 hours every day watching TV, according to a Quartz analysis of the American Time Use Survey. Those aged 50–64 spend almost 3.5 hours a day watching.
Compare that to the less than 2 hours people between the ages of 15 and 34 spend in front of their TVs.