Go Do Something: The Flying Car Story (1 of 2)

Vikas Joshi
May 5, 2020

Economists are saying that we are in for a crappy decade, maybe two. Online media is awash with gloomy forecasts. One wonders: Does it even matter what I do? Can I make a dent amid all that is going on?

Demand is shrinking, supply is disrupted, GDP forecasts are trending downward, unemployment is on the rise, and stock markets have taken a hit. To a vast majority of people, it seems best to hunker down, stay safe, enjoy binge watching, and wait for better times before trying anything new.

For business leaders as well, the right thing to do seems to be to wait it out. Even as paralysis and slumber engulfs the world, there are some people who remain super active. They are looking around, tinkering, enjoying work, and making a difference.

Sanjay Dhall, founder at Detroit Flying Cars and president at Emergent Systems, is one such person. He is building a flying car, frequently flies a plane he has built himself, and has several patents to his name. He is passionate about inventing, creating, and building. I called him recently to see what he is up to these days. His story is full of counterintuitive insights.

Dreaming of a Flying Car

When Dhall conceived of a flying car, he envisioned a day when you could drive your car out of your garage and once on the road, fly off to wherever you wanted to go. People who knew about cars and planes told him he would end up building a crappy car and a crappy airplane.  Yes, but why not begin with that, he reasoned. After all, the first car that rolled off Ford’s assembly line did not have automatic transmission or navigation.

You don’t have to conquer everything in one go.

Take yourself back in time a hundred years and imagine someone dreaming of combining a camera and a telephone. How crazy must that sound back then? Not so anymore. It takes a massive leap of faith to combine two disparate concepts together.

That, and getting out of your comfort zone. Dhall should know. He lives in Detroit, the hub of auto manufacturing in the US. America’s largest car companies have a massive asset base there. There are some who refuse to believe that Tesla could be threatening to disrupt their industry.

Chipping Away

Dhall continued to chip away at the challenge of designing a flying car. That requires a different kind of thinking, he explains. When you consider the entire problem, the whole of it can be quite overwhelming. Better to go one step at a time.

His design required the flying car to be much lighter than a regular car. He needed to use carbon fiber. He did not know where to buy carbon fiber at scale. But I know where to get fiberglass, he said to himself. That’s a start. I can go from there.

That is the essence of Dhall’s approach. Think about the end goal, and then take the first step. Go to the workshop, do something. As you are climbing the mountain, for most of the duration you are nowhere near the end, but you take one step at a time. If you look up, the top of the mountain vanishes in the fog. The end is nowhere in sight, but you tell yourself to keep going, and work on taking the next step.

Tricking COVID-19

While the rest of us were learning how to stop touching our faces, Dhall went ahead and designed a face touch preventer. You can’t squash the virus with a hammer, he says with a big smile. Everybody is nestled at home, posting stats, and wondering how to get groceries, how often to wash your hands, how not to touch your face.

All that is going on, and I am thinking: I’m not a doctor, a biomed expert, or an epidemiologist. I am a total outsider.  I have nothing to do with this. Or do I? Maybe there is something I can do. What are my skills and competencies? Can I do something that will be useful?

It is human nature to touch the face every now and then. How can I trick nature? Wouldn’t it be cool to come up with a way so that something beeps every time your hand reaches for your face, before you touch it?

Ah ha! That’s the benefit of being an outsider. You don’t think like an insider.

Dhall had his problem statement. He went to work, started probing different ways to achieve it, and nudged by suggestions of many colleagues, came up with a gadget anyone can build with inexpensive parts ordered on Amazon. Basically, a wristband that activates a sensor that beeps every time you reach for your face. Simple, elegant, useful.

Audacity and Humility

Whenever a pandemic, a recession, or another big crisis comes along, the voices we hear on social and broadcast media get louder. The loudest voices we hear are of policymakers, economists, experts, politicians, and philosophers. According to Dhall, if that’s all you are hearing, you are headed for paralysis. Your head is full of thought, but all that thought leads to little action, if any.

What does it take to get up and do something when the problem appears insurmountable? Two things, as Dhall’s story shows. First, the audacity to think that there is a piece of the big problem you can work on. And second, confidence that others will solve other parts of the problem. It takes humility to realize that there are millions of others more capable, with an equally fervent desire to make a difference.

How does audacity work? Dhall explains: Imagine a party is happening in a large room and you are standing outside, looking through the window. Being an outsider gives you a unique perspective. You must value that. Throughout history people who have broken industries are outsiders. They are the virus with a pathogen that changes the industry. That is what Musk has done for the prevailing auto industry. Incumbents say they are experts. They cordon off their space. You are outside.

You may not have the degrees and credentials, what you have is the audacity to build something.

And how about humility? Well, you don’t have to solve the whole problem. Own a small piece of it. Have faith that others who are equally motivated, will do their part to solve other pieces. Have trust in yourself, and in others. History of human progress shows that all the pieces eventually come together. If you can connect just a few dots, that’s enough. Trust that others will discover the other links.

It will work out in the end. The fog will clear.

We must find harmony in a world where you are a participant. Be a link in the long chain of progress. Let me just do my part, and hope that this work can serve as a useful link in the long chain of progress. I have hammered this link into place. Others will find it and continue to build along their pursuit. You only hope someone finds your work, so they can work on it. You say: I will build my little piece. That’s all my capacity allows.

Flying Car, Face Touching, You, and Me

Back to the flying car, what happened next? A lot. We have more ground to cover with Sanjay Dhall. We continue exploring the flying car story in the next article.

In the meantime, as business leaders, how should we be thinking about the current situation? Should we sit and wait for better times, or should we get up, own a piece that fits our business capabilities, even if it is at its fringes, and stretches us a bit, especially if it stretches us a bit, and start chipping away? Maybe that piece is making us look at a different market. Should we be afraid of being outsiders in that market?

As individuals, what do we choose? Get buried under depressing stories and gloomy forecasts, or bring our gifts to a piece of the puzzle we can solve, trusting others to do the rest?

The situation may be grim, but maybe we are not as helpless as we think. Maybe we can make a dent regardless of what is going on. The virus has its script and it is working. We have ours. Let’s put our script to work.