It was smooth, tapered, a little confusing – like something Hollywood would give a science fiction villain for a getaway.
It wasn’t a helicopter. And it wasn’t an airplane. It was a cross between the two, with a curved fuselage, two small wings, and eight spinning rotors lined up across the nose and tail.
At the touch of a button on a computer screen under a nearby tent, it came to life, rose from a grassy slope on a central California ranch, and sped toward some cattle grazing under a tree – unresponsive.
“It may look like a strange animal, but it will change the way it is transported,” said Marcus Leng, the Canadian inventor who designed this aircraft, which he named BlackFly.
BlackFly is what is often referred to as the flying car. Engineers and entrepreneurs like Mr. Leng have spent more than a decade promoting this new breed of aircraft, electric vehicles that can take off and land without a runway.
They believe these vehicles are cheaper and safer than helicopters, and give virtually anyone the ability to speed down crowded streets.
“Our dream is to free the world from traffic,” says Sebastian Thrun, another engineer at the heart of this movement.
Most experts agree that this dream is far from reality. But the idea is picking up speed. Dozens of companies are now building these aircraft, and three recently agreed to go public for up to $ 6 billion in deals. For years, people like Mr. Leng and Mr. Thrun hid their prototypes from the rest of the world – few people have seen them, let alone flown in them – but now they are starting to raise the curtain.
Mr. Leng’s company, opener, is building a single-person aircraft for use in rural areas – essentially a private flying car for the wealthy – that could start sales this year. Others are building larger vehicles that they will hopefully use as city air taxis from 2024 – an Uber for the skies. Some develop vehicles that can fly without a pilot.
One of the air taxi companies, Kitty Hawk, is run by Mr. Thrun, the Stanford University computer science professor who founded the Google self-driving car project. He is now saying that autonomy will be much stronger in the air than on the ground and will move into our everyday lives much sooner. “You can fly in a straight line and not have the enormous weight or stop-and-go of a car on the ground,” he said.
The rise of the flying car reflects the success of self-driving vehicles in positive and negative ways, from huge ambitions to multi-billion dollar investments to breakneck corporate competition, including a high profile lawsuit for alleged intellectual property theft. It also reproduces the tremendous hype.
It’s a risky comparison. Google and other self-driving companies not delivered on the great promise that robo-taxis would now drive through our cities and dramatically transform the economy.
But that hasn’t stopped investors and transportation companies from pouring billions more into flying cars. It hasn’t stopped cities from doing business they believe will create huge networks of air taxis. And it hasn’t stopped technologists from pushing ahead with their science fiction plans.
“The Wild West of Aviation”
The table was filled with numbers detailing the rapid advancement of electric motors and batteries, and Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, brought them over to dinner.
It was 2009. Lots of start-ups and weekend hobbyists built little flying drones with these motors and batteries, but when he sat down for dinner with Sebastian Thrun, Mr. Page believed they could go much further.
Mr Thrun had just started Google’s self-driving car project this year, but his boss had an even wilder idea: cars that could fly.
“If you screw up your eyes and look at these numbers, you could see it,” Mr. Thrun recalled.
The couple met regularly with aerospace engineers in an office building just off Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. Mr. Page’s personal chef cooked meals for his guests, including a NASA engineer named Mark Moore and several Stanford aircraft designers.
These meetings were a free flow of ideas that eventually led to an extensive, multi-billion dollar attempt to reinvent the daily transportation of flying cars. Over the past decade, the same small group of engineers and entrepreneurs fed a growing list of projects. Mr. Moore helped Uber before starting his own business. Mr. Page has funded several startups, including Mr. Leng’s company, Opener, and Mr. Thrun’s, Kitty Hawk. New companies have lured countless designers from Mr. Page’s many start-ups.
“It’s the wild west of aviation,” said Moore. “It is a time of rapid change, big movements and big money.
The next few years will be critical for the industry as it moves from what Silicon Valley is known for – building cutting edge technology – to something much more difficult: the messy details of actually getting it into the world.
BlackFly is classified by the government as an experimental “ultra-light” vehicle so it does not require regulatory approval before it can be sold. But an ultralight aircraft cannot be flown over cities or other busy areas either.
To ensure the safety of the vehicle, Opener conducts most of the tests without anyone being on the plane. But the idea is that one person sits in the cockpit and steers the plane alone over rural areas. Buyers can learn to fly through virtual reality simulations, and the aircraft will include autopilot services such as a “return to home” button that will land the aircraft on command.
It has enough room for a six-foot-long person and can fly about 25 miles without charging. The few Opener employees who flew it describe an intoxicating rush, like driving a Tesla through the air – an analogy that will not be lost with the company’s target customers.
Mr. Leng sees all of this as a step into the starry future imagined by “The Jetsons”, the classic cartoon in which flying cars are commonplace. “I’ve always dreamed that we could have unimpeded three-dimensional freedom like a bird – that we could take off and just fly around,” he said.
BlackFly will be way more expensive than your average car to start with (it might cost $ 150,000 or more). And its combination of battery life and mileage is not yet as powerful as most need it for the daily commute.
But Mr. Leng believes this technology will improve, prices will go down to “the cost of an S.U.V.” and the world will ultimately adopt the idea of electric city flights. By putting his vehicle in the hands of a few people, he argues, he can open the eyes of many others.
He compares BlackFly with one of his other inventions: a new type of foam padding that hugs your body when you sit. At first he didn’t know what it was for, but this “memory foam” ended up in office chairs, car seats and mattresses. He is just as unsure how BlackFly will prevail in everyday life, but he is convinced of the possibilities.
Others in the industry are skeptical. They estimate that it will be years or even decades before regulators allow anyone to fly such a vehicle over cities. And they say technology is too important and transformative to remain a toy for millionaires. So you’re betting on something completely different.
“It will take longer than people think”
When Sebastian Thrun watches his aircraft – Heaviside – rise from its own grassy landing pad, he sees more than just the trees, hills and cliffs of the California test site. He imagines an American suburb where his planes will one day bring people to their front doors.
Yes, there are regulatory hurdles and other practical issues. These aircraft require landing pads and could have difficulty navigating dense urban areas thanks to power lines and other low-flying aircraft.
In addition, there is the noise factor, a decisive selling point compared to loud helicopters with internal combustion engines. Mr. Thrun was sitting a few hundred yards from the vehicle, bragging about how quiet the plane was, but when it took off he had no choice but to stop talking. He couldn’t be heard over the whirring of the rotors.
Even so, Mr Thrun says Kitty Hawk will set up an Uber-like rideshare service, in part for simple reasons. Heaviside is even more expensive than BlackFly; Mr Thrun said it costs about $ 300,000 to make. But with a ride-hailing service, companies can spread the cost across many riders.
Like BlackFly, Heaviside only offers one seat – and that seat fits snugly even for an average sized person. But a future version will have a second seat and fly solo so it can carry two passengers. By mass producing a two-seat airplane and sharing the vehicle among many drivers, Mr Thrun said, the company can eventually bring the cost-per-mile down to levels comparable to today’s cars.
Wisk Aero, a company that emerged from Kitty Hawk in 2019 with support from Mr. Page and Boeing, sees the future similarly. It is already testing a two-seat vehicle and building a larger autonomous air taxi with possibly more seats.
Many believe that this is how flying cars will ultimately work: as a taxi, without a pilot. In the long run, they argue, it would be far too expensive to find and pay pilots.
This arrangement is technically possible today. Kitty Hawk and Wisk are already testing autonomous flight. But even here it is far from easy to convince the regulators to sign this idea. The Federal Aviation Administration has never approved electric aircraft, let alone taxis that fly themselves. Companies say they are discussing new certification methodologies with regulators, but it is unclear how quickly this will proceed.
“It’s going to take longer than people think,” said Ilan Kroo, a Stanford professor who also worked closely with Mr. Page and was previously CEO of Kitty Hawk. “There is still a lot to do before regulators accept these vehicles as safe – and before people accept them as safe.”
“How Uber meets Tesla in the air”
Nobody will fly in an electric taxi this year or next. However, some cities are making early preparations. And one company has its sights set on 2024.
In another field in central California not far from Kitty Hawk and Opener testing their prototypes, Joby Aviation recently tested its own. This polished, pointed prototype called the Joby Aircraft is much larger than Heaviside, with more cabin space and larger rotors along the wings.
From several hundred meters away, while a traditional helicopter flew overhead, observers had difficulty determining the volume during take-off and landing. And it flew with no passengers, remotely controlled from a command center trailer crammed with screens and engineers on the ground. But Joby says that by 2024 that vehicle will be a taxi that flies over a city like Los Angeles or Miami. She, too, is planning an Uber to take to the skies, although her planes will have a licensed pilot.
Joby believes regulators are unlikely to approve autonomous flights anytime soon. “Our approach is more like Tesla than Waymo,” said CEO Paul Sciarra, using the most popular analogy of this emerging industry. “We want to get something on the way to full autonomy.”
To support those plans, it has partnered with Toyota to manufacture aircraft and acquire Uber Elevate, the air taxi project that Mr Moore helped create inside the ride-hailing giant. In the coming months, Joby plans to merge with a special purpose vehicle, SPAC for short, which will bring the company public with a valuation of $ 6.6 billion. Two other companies, California-based Archer and Germany-based Lilium, have made similar deals.
The SPAC deals allow companies to promote ambitious business projections, which the Securities and Exchange Commission otherwise prohibits from going public. In an investor presentation, Joby announced a trillion dollar market opportunity.
After starting in one city, the company will rapidly expand to others, according to its investor presentation, with $ 2 billion in sales and over $ 1 billion in gross profits within two years. Until then, more than $ 150 million will be lost every year.
Reid Hoffman, the venture capitalist and co-founder of LinkedIn, is an investor behind the SPAC, which is merging with Joby. He admires the cool factor of the vehicle. “It’s like Uber hits Tesla in the air,” he said, taking v.c. speak to heaven. What fascinated him most, however, was the company’s potential to redefine cities, commuters and traffic collisions for a wide range of people.
Of the three IPOs, Joby is the only one whose prototype is now flying. And both competitors face questions about their technology. One was sued by Wisk for intellectual property theft after poaching several engineers, and the other recently abandoned a prototype over a battery fire.
Some believe that even with pilots in the cockpit, these companies will be under heavy pressure to launch services by 2024. “There’s a big gap between flying an airplane and being willing to generate income,” said Dan Patt, who worked on similar technologies at the Department of Defense.
Flying cars could hit the market in the next few years. But they won’t look or function like the flying cars in the Jetsons. Rather, they will operate like helicopters, with pilots flying people from landing pad to landing pad for a fee.
They are more environmentally friendly than helicopters and require less maintenance. They get quieter, at least a little. And they can be cheaper at some point. One day they might even fly alone.
“Can we do that in the morning? Probably not, ”said Mr. Thrun. But if you screw up your eyes and look at one of these prototypes, he adds, you can see it happen.