Forget autonomous vehicles for a minute. At the rate we’re going, everyone will be fighting over the latest flying cars before long. In the past we’ve talked a bit about this far-fetched mode of Jetson transportation, and recently there have been some exciting developments. While we certainly are a lot closer to seeing self-driving cars, a few heavy hitters have begun to bank heavily on the development of small, all-electric personal aircraft that can take off and land vertically, which around here we like to call flying cars.
Take pioneering plane think tank and development firm Zee.Aero for example: While it may not belong to Google or its holding company, Alphabet, it does belong to Larry Page, Google’s co-founder. According to sources, Page has continuously dumped stacks of greenbacks into the company since its launch in 2010, all while keeping his involvement as far from the public eye as possible. In a report by Bloomberg, Page’s involvement with Zee.Aero shows that this is actually just one chapter in Page’s epic flying opus, where sources say that he personally plans to bring about an era when personalized air travel frees us from the streets below and all of the bullshit associated with airlines and airports.
Bloomberg also says that Zee.Aero employees never referred to Page by name when he spent downtime in the studio above their facility, instead referring to him as GUS, or the guy upstairs. But once development outgrew the lower level, the use of the upstairs space became mandatory, at which point all of Page’s priceless paintings, exercise gear, and a classic Model X rocket engine from his second floor man cave were hauled away.
Taking their place were 150 employees, and operations quickly expanded to the point where an airport hangar 70 minutes away was required for the testing of a prototype aircraft. A manufacturing facility on NASA’s Ames Research Center has also been recently procured, and according to two anonymous insiders, Page has already spent around $100 million on Zee.Aero, with even more in the chamber.
In addition to this primary flying-car project, Page has also begun dumping funds into a secondary startup called Kitty Hawk, where most of the staff was siphoned from the Zee.Aero team and moved in order to work on a competing design. While a little friendly competition never hurt anyone, according to 2015 business filings that Bloomberg unearthed, Kitty Hawk’s president is none other than Sebastian Thrun, the man behind Google’s autonomous car program and the founder of research division Google?X.
With the advent of stronger, lighter materials, autonomous navigation systems, and other kick-ass tech advancements, world renowned flying-car guru Paul Moller has more to drool over than any time in his 50-year career. What started with a unique idea pertaining to aircraft you could park in your garage eventually morphed into flying saucers, followed by speeches on the matter, where a young engineer named Larry Page remained skeptical of street-grade personal aircraft. Flash forward a few decades, and Moller had sunk over $100 million in his designs, forcing the engineer to declare personal bankruptcy in 2009.
Around the same time, NASA researcher and aeronautical engineer Mark Moore was busy publishing a paper outlining a concept plane that used quieter and safer electric motors that utilized fewer moving components than traditional engines or turbines. Moore gives credit to Tesla for this boost in advancements in the electric motor field, saying “It wasn’t until the automotive industry got interested that they started to get more lightweight.”
While the self-driving systems used in Google’s Koala cars are about a decade away from reaching the roads, Moore feels that they probably are ready to safely surf the skies. “Self-flying aircraft is so much easier than what the auto companies are trying to do with self-driving cars,” Moore says.
As Moore’s paper began to make the rounds in 2009, Ilan Kroo, an aeronautics and astronautics professor at Stanford, teamed up with Page to start Zee.Aero. At the same time another man, JoeBen Bevirt, a mechanical engineer and entrepreneur who had studied under Moller, founded Joby Aviation, a company he hoped would one day beat Page to the punch and prove that the work of now-bankrupt Moller wasn’t all in vain.
After getting his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford, Bevirt started Joby, which sold camera accessories like flexible plastic tripods, turning him into a multimillionaire in no time. In 2009 he used some of his immense wealth to buy a 500-acre area of land to start Joby Aviation, luring in Paul Sciarra of Pinterest fame, who financially jumped on board, making a promise in the process. “The goal is to build a product that impacts the lives of lots of people,” Sciarra says. “Not just folks that are amateur pilots or wealthy, but everyone.”
Sciarra and Bevirt hope to begin flying a human-scale prototype plane later this year, and foresee the vehicle someday taking off from places like parking garages, rooftops, and areas alongside highways. Flights will be similar to what one would expect when hailing an Uber, and the craft resembles aircraft like the two-seat German Volocopter, which is powered by 18 propellers. Other flying-car startups include AeroMobil, Lilium Aviation, and Terrafugia, and even Airbus has gotten on deck with a two-seater prototype at its Silicon Valley labs.
Then, in 2013, the world watched as Red Bull held one of its Flugtag competitions, as dozens of nut job hobbyists launched their homemade flying machines off a dock and into the sea. While the majority of the contraptions tended to soar straight into the water amidst throngs of laughter, an unknown group called “The Chicken Whisperers” sporting full-body baby-chick outfits pushed its glider off the dock and set a new record of 258 feet.
Little did anyone know that these “flying chickens” were all Zee.Aero employees in disguise, all of whom were there to blow off some steam and to test out a handful of designs they had been hoarding. Bloomberg says that many of these young aerospace designers, software engineers, and experts in motor and battery hardware were likely pilfered from companies like SpaceX, NASA, and Boeing.
At the Hollister Municipal Airport, people have been catching glimpses of two Zee.Aero prototypes, as engineers run test flights when air traffic is low. Witnesses claim that both craft reportedly feature a narrow body, a pronounced cockpit with room for a single pilot, and a wing at the back, making them “pushers,” or aircraft with two propellers in the rear.
Things have been in high gear ever since the Kitty Hawk team set up shop down the street, with veterans like Emerick Oshiro of autonomous automobile fame at Google, and David Estrada from Google?X spearhead programs. Employees say it’s common for Zee.Aero engineers to speculate over lunch about what their Kitty Hawk counterparts are up to, as the smaller team moves to beat them to the punch by developing a giant version of a quadcopter drone.
But after it’s all said and done, there’s still a strong chance that all of these flying car concepts will crash and burn like every single prototype that came before them, because if physics and gravity don’t ground them, government regulations and safety requirements will. But no one ever thought man would fly either, and if anyone can bring us the future of flight it’s Silicon Valley, as we look to the skies and wonder what kind of thrust booster upgrades will be offered for our Boba Fett themed Slave 1 replica.