It was sleek, cone-shaped, a little confusing – like something Hollywood would give a sci-fi villain for a quick getaway.
It wasn’t a helicopter. And it wasn’t an airplane. It was a cross between the two, with a curved hull, two small wings and eight spinning rotors lined up across its nose and tail.
At the touch of a button on a computer screen under a nearby tent, it stirred to life, rising up from a grassy slope on a ranch in central California and speeding toward some cattle grazing under a tree – who did not react in the slightest.
"It may look like a strange beast, but it will change the way transportation happens," said Marcus Leng, the Canadian inventor who designed this aircraft, which he named BlackFly.
BlackFly is what is often called a flying car. Engineers and entrepreneurs like Leng have spent more than a decade nurturing this new breed of aircraft, electric vehicles that can take off and land without a runway.
They believe these vehicles will be cheaper and safer than helicopters, providing practically anyone with the means of speeding above crowded streets.
"Our dream is to free the world from traffic," said Sebastian Thrun, another engineer at the heart of this movement.
That dream, most experts agree, is a long way from reality. But the idea is gathering steam. Dozens of companies are now building these aircraft, and three recently agreed to go public in deals that value them as high as $6 billion. For years, people like Leng and Thrun have kept their prototypes hidden from the rest of the world – few people have seen them, much less flown in them – but they are now beginning to lift the curtain.
It is a time of rapid change, big moves and big money
Leng's company, Opener, is building a single-person aircraft for use in rural areas – essentially a private flying car for the rich – that could start selling this year. Others are building larger vehicles they hope to deploy as city air taxis as soon as 2024 – an Uber for the skies. Some are designing vehicles that can fly without a pilot.
One of the air taxi companies, Kitty Hawk, is run by Thrun, the Stanford University computer science professor who founded Google's self-driving car project. He now says that autonomy will be far more powerful in the air than on the ground, and that it will enter our daily lives much sooner. "You can fly in a straight line and you don't have the massive weight or the stop-and-go of a car" on the ground, he said.
The rise of the flying car mirrors that of self-driving vehicles in ways both good and bad, from the enormous ambition to the multibillion-dollar investments to the cutthroat corporate competition, including a high-profile lawsuit alleging intellectual property theft. It also re-creates the enormous hype.
It is a risky comparison. Google and other self-driving companies did not deliver on the grand promise that robo-taxis would be zipping around our cities by now, dramatically reshaping the economy.
But that has not stopped investors and transportation companies from dumping billions more into flying cars. It has not stopped cities from striking deals they believe will create vast networks of air taxis. And it has not stopped technologists from forging full steam ahead with their plans to turn sci-fi into reality.
‘Wild West of aviation’
The spreadsheet was filled with numbers detailing the rapid progress of electric motors and rechargeable batteries, and Larry Page, Google co-founder, brought it to dinner.
It was 2009. Many startups and weekend hobbyists were building small flying drones with those motors and batteries, but as he sat down for a meal with Thrun, Page believed they could go much further.
Thrun had only just launched Google’s self-driving car project that year, but his boss had an even wilder idea: cars that could fly.
“When you squinted your eyes and looked at those numbers, you could see it,” Thrun remembered.
The pair started meeting regularly with aerospace engineers inside an office building just down the road from Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. Page's personal chef made meals for his guests, including a NASA engineer named Mark Moore and several aircraft designers from Stanford.
Those meetings were a free flow of ideas that eventually led to a sprawling, multibillion-dollar effort to reinvent daily transportation with flying cars. Over the past decade, the same small group of engineers and entrepreneurs fed a growing list of projects. Moore helped launch an effort at Uber, before starting his own company. Page funnelled money into multiple startups, including Leng’s company, Opener, and Thrun’s, Kitty Hawk. New companies poached countless designers from Page’s many startups.
“It is the Wild West of aviation,” Moore said. “It is a time of rapid change, big moves and big money.”
The next few years will be crucial to the industry as it transitions from what Silicon Valley is known for – building cutting-edge technology – to something much harder: the messy details of actually getting it into the world.
BlackFly is classified by the government as an experimental “ultralight” vehicle, so it does not need regulatory approval before being sold. But an ultralight also cannot be flown over cities or other bustling areas.
As it works to ensure the vehicle is safe, Opener does most of its testing without anyone riding in the aircraft. But the idea is that a person will sit in the cockpit and pilot the aircraft solo over rural areas. Buyers can learn to fly via virtual reality simulations, and the aircraft will include autopilot services like a “return to home” button that lands the plane on command.
It has enough room for a 6-foot, 6-inch person, and it can fly for about 25 miles without recharging. The few Opener employees who have flown it describe an exhilarating rush, like driving a Tesla through the sky – an analogy that will not be lost on the company’s target customer.
Leng sees all this as a step toward the starry future envisioned by The Jetsons, the classic cartoon in which flying cars are commonplace. “I have always had a dream that we could have unfettered three-dimensional freedom like a bird does – that we can take off and just fly around,” he said.
BlackFly will initially be far more expensive than your average car (perhaps costing $150,000 or more). And its combination of battery life and mileage is not yet as powerful as most anyone’s daily commute requires.
But Leng believes this technology will improve, prices will drop to “the cost of an SUV” and the world will ultimately embrace the idea of electric urban flight. By putting his vehicle into the hands of a relative few people, he argues, he can open the eyes of many more.
He compares BlackFly to one of his other inventions: a new kind of foam padding that moulded itself to your body when you sat on it. He did not initially know what it would be good for, but this “memory foam” wound up in office chairs, car seats and mattresses. In much the same way, he is unsure how BlackFly will work its way into everyday life, but he is confident of the possibilities.
Others in the field are sceptical. They estimate it will be years – or even decades – before regulators will allow just anyone to fly such a vehicle over cities. And they say the technology is too important and transformative to remain a plaything for millionaires. So they are betting on something very different.
Cost per mile
When Thrun watches his flying vehicle – Heaviside – rise up from its own grassy landing pad, he sees more than just the trees, hills and crags of the California test site. He envisions an American suburbia where his aircraft ferries people to their front doors sometime in the future.
Yes, there are regulatory hurdles and other practical matters. These planes will need landing pads, and they could have trouble navigating dense urban areas, thanks to power lines and other low-flying aircraft.
There is also the noise factor, a crucial selling point over loud combustion engine helicopters. Sitting a few hundred feet from the vehicle, Thrun boasted about how quiet the aircraft was, but when it took off, he had no choice but to stop talking. He could not be heard over the whir of the rotors.
Even so, Thrun says Kitty Hawk will build an Uber-like ride-hailing service, in part, because of simple economics. Heaviside is even more expensive than BlackFly; Thrun said it costs around $300,000 to manufacture. But with a ride-hailing service, companies can spread the cost across many riders.
Like BlackFly, Heaviside offers only one seat – and that seat is a tight fit, even for the average-sized person. But a future version will offer a second seat and fly on its own, allowing it to carry two passengers. By mass-producing a two-seat aircraft and sharing the vehicle among many riders, Thrun said, the company can eventually get the cost per mile down to a level that is on par with today’s automobiles.
Wisk Aero, a company that spun out of Kitty Hawk in 2019 with backing from Page and Boeing, sees the future in much the same way. It is already testing a two-seat vehicle, and it is building a larger autonomous air taxi that may have more seats.
Many believe this is how flying cars will ultimately operate: as a taxi, without a pilot. In the long run, they argue, finding and paying pilots would be far too expensive.
This arrangement is technically possible today. Kitty Hawk and Wisk are already testing autonomous flight. But once again, convincing regulators to sign off on this idea is far from simple. The Federal Aviation Administration has never approved electric aircraft, much less taxis that fly themselves. Companies say they are discussing new methods of certification with regulators, but it is unclear how quickly this will progress.
"It is going to take longer than people think," said Ilan Kroo, a Stanford professor who has also worked closely with Page and previously served as CEO of Kitty Hawk. "There is a lot to be done before regulators accept these vehicles as safe – and before people accept them as safe."
No one is flying in an electric taxi this year, or even next. But some cities are making early preparations. One company has 2024 in its sights.
In another central California field not far from where Kitty Hawk and Opener are testing their prototypes, Joby Aviation recently tested its own. Called the Joby Aircraft, this polished, pointy prototype is much bigger than Heaviside, with more space in the cabin and larger rotors along the wings.
From several hundred yards away, with a traditional helicopter flying above, observers had trouble determining how loud it was during takeoff and landing. And it flew without passengers, remotely guided from a command centre trailer stuffed with screens and engineers on the ground.
But Joby says that by 2024, this vehicle will be a taxi flying over a city like Los Angeles or Miami. It too is planning an Uber for the skies, though its aircraft will have a licensed pilot.
Can we do this tomorrow morning? Probably not
Joby believes that regulators are unlikely to approve autonomous flight anytime soon. "Our approach is more like Tesla than Waymo," said executive chairperson, Paul Sciarra, using this burgeoning industry's favourite analogy. "We want to get something out there on the way to full autonomy."
To aid in these plans, it has partnered with Toyota to manufacture aircraft and acquired Uber Elevate, the air taxi project Moore helped create inside the ride-hailing giant. In the coming months, Joby plans to merge with a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, that will take it public at a $6.6 billion valuation. Two other companies, California-based Archer and Germany-based Lilium, have struck similar deals.
The SPAC deals allow the companies to advertise ambitious business projections, something the Securities and Exchange Commission otherwise prohibits in initial public offerings. In an investor presentation, Joby touted a trillion-dollar market opportunity.
After launching in one city, the company says, it will quickly expand to others, bringing in $2 billion in revenue and more than $1 billion in gross profit within two years, according to its investor presentation. Until then, it will lose more than $150 million each year.
Reid Hoffman, venture capitalist and LinkedIn co-founder, is an investor behind the SPAC that is merging with Joby. He admires the vehicle’s cool factor. “It’s like Uber meets Tesla in the air,” he said, taking venture capitalist speak to the skies. But he was most attracted to the company’s potential to redefine cities, commutes and gridlock for a broad group of people.
Of the three going public, Joby is the only one whose prototype is now flying. And both its rivals are facing questions over their technology. One has been sued by Wisk, accused of intellectual property theft after poaching several engineers, and the other recently abandoned a prototype because of a battery fire.
Some believe that even with pilots in the cockpit, these companies will be hard pressed to launch services by 2024.
"There is a big gap between flying an aircraft and being ready for revenue," said Dan Patt, who worked on similar technology at the Department of Defence.
Flying cars may reach the market over the next several years. But they will not look or operate like the flying cars in The Jetsons. More likely, they will operate like helicopters, with pilots flying people from landing pad to landing pad for a fee.
They will be greener than helicopters and require less maintenance. They will be quieter, at least a little. And they may eventually be cheaper. One day, they could even fly on their own.
“Can we do this tomorrow morning? Probably not,” Thrun said. But if you squint your eyes and look at one of these prototypes, he added, you can see it happen. – New York Times