MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA–We colloquially call them flying cars – personal, electric, autonomous aircraft, explained business journalist Brad Stone.
Along with colleague Ashley Vance, Stone wrote a recent Bloomberg Business Week cover story about Google co-founder Larry Page’s two secret “flying-car factories.”
The advent of new electric-powered vehicles that could transport people through the air, well outside of the existing, already-strained transportation infrastructure, would likely be a welcome addition in New Jersey, the most-crowded state in the nation.
“Now that sounds absolutely crazy,” added Stone, recalling a saying in Silicon Valley known to conjure up feelings of disappointment: “They promised us flying cars, and instead we got 140 characters [Twitter].”
But so-called "flying cars" would not have to deal with many of the challenging obstacles faced by their modern counterparts on a daily basis: pedestrians, the quality of the roads, traffic.
"Those [obstacles] aren't going to exist up in the skies," said Stone, comparing the quest for flying cars to efforts to create self-driving vehicles that would work within the existig land-based transprotation system.
Stone said he and Vance began research a couple years ago and in the process learned of “some very credible efforts looking at basically changing the way [people] get around [and] commute.”
Although flying in cars above traffic has long been considered a pipe dream, the advent of highly improved materials, autonomous computers and navigation systems, and artificial intelligence “has convinced a growing body of smart, wealthy… people that within the next few years we’ll have a self-flying car that takes off and lands vertically,” according to the authors.
“So much has changed since people started dreaming up these kinds of aircrafts,” says Stone.
These small electric commuter planes could very well “be feasible in the next ten years,” wrote the pair, citing experts who feel taking off and landing vertically will be a reality.
Asked to describe the technology driving the development of autonomous electric vehicles, Stone points to advances in electric motors, and new light weight materials, among other things.
He also credits innovations by entrepreneurs like Ellon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors as “pioneering” underlying advances in technology and turning to electric propulsion, rather than internal combustion engines, for simplicity.
“[Many] of the [issues] that cars have to deal with: pedestrians, quality of the roads, [and] traffic, aren’t going to exist up in the skies,” says Stone, adding that travel in small passenger aircraft would solve strains on our transportation system.
Zee.aero, Page’s initial clandestine flying car venture, has existed for about five years, according to Stone, while the newer company, Kitty Hawk, was founded last year.
It’s “very secretive,” said Stone.
“As far as we know, it’s a totally independent effort with a different technical solution than Zee.aero and really he set up these two companies in competition with each other to see who could get there first.”
Kitty Hawk employees are even “sequestered from Zee’s team,” according to the article.
Just how much has Page invested in Zee.Aero? More than $100 million, two people familiar with the company told Bloomberg.
The independently wealthy entrepreneurs working on these projects are likely “motivated less by profit-seeking,” notes Stone, than by their desire to help change the world for the better.