CLEARLAKE, CALIF.—On a recent afternoon, an aerospace engineer working for a small Silicon Valley company called Kitty Hawk piloted a flying car above a scenic lake about 160 kilometres north of San Francisco.
Kitty Hawk’s flying car, if you insisted on calling it a “car,” looked like something Luke Skywalker would have built out of spare parts. It was an open-seated, 100-kilogram contraption with room for one person, powered by eight battery-powered propellers that howled as loudly as a speedboat.
The tech industry is fond of disrupting things, and lately the automakers have been a big target. Cars that use artificial intelligence to drive themselves, for example, have been in development for a few years and can be spotted on roads in a number of cities. And now, coming onto the radar screen are flying machines that do not exactly look like your father’s Buick with wings.
More than a dozen startups backed by deep-pocketed industry figures such as Larry Page, a Google founder — along with big aerospace firms like Airbus, the ride-hailing company Uber and even the government of Dubai — are taking on the dream of the flying car.
The approaches by the companies vary and the realization of their competing visions seems far in the future, but they have one thing in common: a belief that one day regular people should be able to fly their own vehicles around town.
There are challenges, with both the technology and government regulations. Perhaps the biggest hurdle will be convincing the public that the whole idea isn’t crazy.
“I love the idea of being able to go out into my backyard and hop into my flying car,” said Brad Templeton, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has served as a consultant on Google’s self-driving project. “I hate the idea of my next-door neighbour having one.”
Kitty Hawk, the company backed by Page, is trying to be one of the first out of the gate and plans to start selling its vehicle by the end of the year.
The company has attracted intense interest because of Page and its chief executive, Sebastian Thrun, an influential technologist and self-driving car pioneer who is the founding director of Google’s X lab.
In 2013, Zee Aero, a Kitty Hawk division, became the object of Silicon Valley rumours when reports of a small air taxi-like vehicle first surfaced.
Page declined a request for an interview but said in a statement: “We’ve all had dreams of flying effortlessly. I’m excited that one day very soon I’ll be able to climb onto my Kitty Hawk Flyer for a quick and easy personal flight.”
During his recent test flight, Cameron Robertson, the aerospace engineer, used two joystick-like controls to swing the vehicle back and forth above Clear Lake. The flight, just 4.5 metres above the water, circled over the lake about 18 to 27 metres from shore, and after about five minutes Robertson steered back to a floating landing pad at the end of a dock.
The Kitty Hawk Flyer is one of several prototypes the startup, based in Mountain View, Calif., is designing. The company hopes to create an audience of enthusiasts and hobbyists, who can now pay $100 (U.S.) to sign up for a $2,000 discount on the retail price of a Flyer to “gain exclusive access to Kitty Hawk experiences and demonstrations where a select few will get the chance to ride the Flyer.”
It is an unusual offer, since the company has not yet set a price for the vehicle, and Thrun’s and Page’s involvement can be taken as evidence that the company is aiming far beyond hobbyists. Still, Kitty Hawk is clearly targeting a new kind of transportation — air flight that can be performed safely by most people and hopefully with government approval.
“We have been in contact with the FAA, and we see the regulators as friends,” Thrun said in an interview. He agreed that concerns about vehicles flying over our heads were legitimate. “I believe that all of us have to work together to understand how new technologies will shape the future of society,” he said.
Two years ago, Thrun recruited two other pioneers, Robertson and Todd Reichert who were aerospace engineers from AeroVelo, a University of Toronto spinoff company that won a coveted prize for a human-powered helicopter and set the land speed record for a bicycle last year.
They are flying under a special U.S. Federal Aviation Administration category for ultralight aircraft that does not require a pilot’s licence and is intended for recreational flying in uncongested areas. To add an extra margin of safety, the Kitty Hawk engineers are sticking to flying over open water. The company said the final commercial product will look different and be far quieter than the test model.
Kitty Hawk could face stiff competition, not just from about a half dozen startups, but from giant Airbus, based in Blagnac, France. The aerospace firm has announced two vertical takeoff and landing, or VTOL, concepts and is reported to be planning an initial test flight before the end of the year.
At the Geneva International Motor Show last month, Airbus proposed an autonomous vehicle, named “Pop.Up,” that would operate on both the ground and in the air. And this year, the government of Dubai, in partnership with a Chinese firm, EHang, said it planned to begin operating an autonomous flying taxi by this July. Also, Uber is expected on Tuesday to detail its “vision for the future of Urban Air Mobility” at a conference in Dallas.
There is no shortage of skeptics happy to point out the roadblocks for these vehicles. There is already significant resistance to the idea of unmanned drones flying over urban areas, and flying cars could face substantial opposition, even if they can be quieted to automotive noise levels.
For these personal air vehicles to become a reality in the United States, the country would need a whole new air traffic control system.
Two years ago, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration began development of an air traffic control system meant for managing all sorts of flying vehicles, including drones. One NASA developer described it as an air traffic control system, “for a sky dark with drones.” Researchers hope testing can begin by 2019.
Batteries are also an issue. While electric propeller-driven motors seem promising, today’s battery technology cannot support flights of a reasonable distance, say a 50- or 80-kilometre commute.
“How is this going to work? I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but we can’t even take our cellphones on airplanes today because of fears about battery fires,” said Missy Cummings, the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University, who is researching personal air transport for NASA.
And don’t forget that flying cars will not be able to pull to the side of the road in an emergency, said John Leonard, a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
“Silicon Valley is full of very smart people, but they don’t always get the laws of physics,” he said. “Gravity is a formidable adversary.”