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Sikorsky vs Ford: The Longtime Dilemma of How to Innovate in a World of Hype

David Bruemmer
5D Co-Founder, Chief Technology Officer

Most people think of Henry Ford (born July 30, 1863) as a brilliant technologist, but he was also an energetic politician who understood how to galvanize bureaucracies to change. Igor Sikorsky (born May 25, 1889) was also a brilliant pioneer, but he was more an engineer and inventor than an innovator. An inventor imagines and then creates something wholly new. An innovator convinces us to adopt this new thing. In theory, a person can be both, but in practice the world tends to favor innovators over inventors. This is partly because the innovator is more likely to reap the financial rewards, but also because the innovator is the one we see carrying the torch. Unfortunately, the victory often goes not to the best technology, but to the best torch carrier. Hype becomes a critical factor in deciding how innovation permeates our homes, roads and factories. This was true in the beginning of the 20th Century as Americans decided how to embrace cars and helicopters and is just as true today as we gaze into a future with self-driving and flying cars.

The car was not nearly as innovative as the helicopter but today there are a lot more cars than helicopters. In 1939, Sikorsky designed and flew the Vought-Sikorsky VS-300, the first viable American helicopter. Some, such as Raja Sengupta at Berkeley, point out that perhaps the helicopter could have revolutionized transportation in a much more efficient fashion than cars, without the need for billions to be spent on infrastructure (i.e. roads, traffic lights, etc.). Perhaps we would all be driving flying cars if Detroit’s silver tongued leadership had not seized the market by commandeering the American imagination. The vision emanating from Detroit permeated into the collective consciousness of the American people, convincing them to forego public transportation, bicycling and helicopters in favor of shiny metal cars and sweeping asphalt roadways. Ford even convinced the city of Detroit to send all the cable cars to Mexico.
Sikorsky couldn’t understand why more people did not want to be transported directly and efficiently through the air. It seemed to him that his helicopter could obviate the need to blanket large segments of the world with concrete. At the end of the day, few people could contend with Ford’s vision of a car in every driveway. It is ironic that Sikorsky’s great achievement was not only consigned to the metaphorical edge cases of Henry Ford’s landscape, but also literally, in 1943, the actual VS-300 was retired to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. You can’t make this stuff up.

So what does this history lesson mean for us today? Although most people don’t realize it, we are once again at a cross-roads that will impact our future landscape and decide how we get from point A to point B. We have an opportunity to decide our fate, but we continue to be swayed by hype. We see the billions being spent by car companies on self-driving, but most people don’t see the accompanying marketing budgets intended to convince you that autonomous cars are going to solve your problems. I love creating autonomy and I have dedicated a large part of my life to the quest, but I also believe in taking an honest look at the big picture. The hype is that individually intelligent cars will allow you to play chess with your kids instead of drive, but what you aren’t being told is that your commute will still be really long and that the fundamental model of individual car ownership is not sustainable regardless of how smart your car is.
Adding another lane doesn’t solve the problem. We simply have too many cars and we are not using them wisely. At any given time over 90% of cars in the world are parked. It took me two hours yesterday to go thirty miles through Los Angeles. I could go faster on my bicycle which means that somehow we have really messed things up. To be specific, it means that one hundred years after the heyday of the Model T in 1917, Henry Ford’s vision of smooth, efficient urban transportation has fallen apart at the seams. Driving through LA in 2017 I am actually slower using Henry Ford’s innovation than Karl von Drais’s bicycle which he invented in 1817.

So where do we go from here? It turns out that a number of companies are now turning to Sikorsky’s vision of putting a flying vehicle in every driveway. At the Consumer Electronics Show last year in Vegas, eHang began telling the world it can transport people door to door with a multi-rotor vehicle. Now several others have joined the fray including some mainstream corporations. Uber recently asserted they are going to provide Flying Taxis for point to point air transport alongside their ground-based operations in Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas, US and Dubai by 2020. A German company, Lilium has an impressive vertical takeoff and landing flight demonstration. A colleague from DARPA days, Sebastian Thrun, who won the DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous cars is now turning his attention to flying cars. He is now advocating the Kitty Hawk Flyer which could provide a near term solution for personal transportation. In April they unveiled the working prototype for a flying car that may be available for purchase by the end of the year.

Personally, I still prefer Karl von Drais’s bicycle from two hundred years ago, but as an inventor I respect the genius of both Sikorsky and Ford. If we do things right, we can craft a future such that ground and air vehicles can work together creating a seamless transportation system. Rather than focus only on the vehicles, we need to think about the ecosystem. The key is not just having the right vehicles, but also the means to coordinate them based on accurate, reliable positioning.

Date:  Jun 05, 2017
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