Like the robber barons of the Gilded Age, some of the tech billionaires of Silicon Valley are using their vast wealth to try to transform the world according to their vision(s). Bill Gates has his foundation. Elon Musk wants us to ditch the fossil-fueled car. Both Musk and Jeff Bezos want space colonies. And Google’s Larry Page? He wants those flying cars we were promised.
This week Bloomberg told us that Page owns not one but two flying car startups: Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk. Both companies appear rather media shy, but they seem to be working on small passenger aircraft that can take off and land vertically, according to reports from former employees, patent filings, and eye-witness accounts from Hollister Municipal Airport in California (where Zee.Aero is testing). The vehicles are probably using electric motors as well. “When the aircraft take off, they sound like air raid sirens,” Bloomberg wrote.
Page’s companies are but two among a score or more working on flying cars. There are old doyens of the field like Moller, which has been at it for more than 40 years, as well as more recent upstarts like Terrafugia and Aeromobil. It’s certainly a lofty goal, but will it succeed? At the very least, it feels like some of the necessary enabling technologies are getting closer to being ready. Battery powered flight is achievable, as last year’s English Channel crossing(s) demonstrated. Electric motors are smaller, lighter, and much less complex than jets, and the drone explosion serves as evidence that we can make ungainly shapes fly well even in the hands of amateurs, thanks to software.
But like with the autonomous car, solving the technological hurdles in the way of flying cars is necessary but not sufficient to make them a reality. Aviation is an activity that’s extremely, heavily scrutinized with much justification. If your car suffers a mechanical problem, you can pull to the side of the road and wait for AAA without worrying if you’re going to drop onto a school, for example.
There are also the neighbors to think about. A hoverboard capable of levitating a single human being is already extremely loud, so we don’t doubt reports that Zee.Aero’s vehicle sounds like an air raid siren. That’s acceptable if you take off and land at already noisy airfields, but it seems unlikely to fly in residential areas.
If flying cars are finally going to take off, some careful thought is going to be needed.