Larry Page, one of the co-founders of Google, is, according to many, a quiet man. He likes to think deeply about the world’s problems and come up with ways to solve them, no matter how outrageous the solutions may seem. And he has an exceptional track record.
Not only has Page helped to revolutionize the world of search, but he’s also been the brains behind many of the most important Google spinoffs attempting to tackle the world’s toughest challenges.
When Google bought Boston Dynamics, many thought that robotics would be the future direction of the company. But it soon became clear that robots didn’t sit all that well with the company ethos: they just seemed to damn scary. Google changed tack, but Page has never been one to talk about his plans.
Things changed though when a leak to the press revealed that he had invested more than $100 million of his personal $50 billion fortune into the development of “flying cars.” Of course, that terminology isn’t perhaps the most helpful, but it is just about the closest reference point we have in the popular lexicon.
Page’s interest in flying transportation isn’t new. In fact, it’s something that entrepreneurs have been trying to figure out for a long time. Is there a way to safely use all that space above our heads to reduce congestion and pollution in cities, and make traveling more comfortable and faster?
The problem today, as Elon Musk puts it, is that cities are three-dimensional – especially in the central business districts with tall skyscrapers – but transportation systems are two-dimensional. Roads on top of roads exist, but they’re rare.
Wouldn’t it be better if there was some way to layer transportation in the air so that more people could zoom to and from their destinations?
Of course, the technical challenges of making this happen are enormous. Preventing collisions in mid-air is clearly the priority, but other considerations, such as noise and pollution are also making the problem harder to solve.
With that said, we may be on the cusp of a flying car revolution, all thanks to advances in technology. It won’t be quite how people imagined flying cars, where the average Joe could just put his vehicle in airplane mode. But it will be functionally similar.
Two technologies have made the flying car a possibility. The first is an improvement in lithium-ion batteries. Batteries are still poor sources of energy from anything that flies, but energy density has now improved to the point where drones large enough to transport passengers could travel from, say, the city center to an airport ten miles away on a single charge. The other improvement is AI. Paying a pilot to fly all those aerial vehicles would cost a fortune, but getting a computer to do it would be free.
To begin with, aviation attorneys might do good business. But the problem of flying an aircraft autonomously is actually a lot easier than of driving a car. There are fewer obstacles, and presumably, all other flying vehicles would be autonomous too.
So who is seriously working on this problem and trying to make money by solving it?
Volocopter is a company that’s trying to change the traditional helicopter into something that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. Their idea is based on the concept of consumer drones, using multiple smaller rotors to provide lift, all powered by an onboard battery.
The reason for the smaller rotors is simple: they create less turbulence and make less sound. Volocopter knows that if it’s product is to be successful, both the people inside and outside of the vehicle need to feel happy. Given that even small drones make annoying noises, it remains to be seen whether their idea will work.
Terrafugia, a company founded in 2006 in Massachusetts has secured more than $5.5 million of investor capital to date to create what looks like a genuine flying car.
This isn’t a drone by any stretch of the imagination, but something with fold-up wings that you could imagine driving on the road. Amazingly, the company says that its vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicle is street legal, so they appear to have dealt with many of the regulatory hurdles already.
Will we ever see the company’s TF-X in production? They say that it will be about ten years before regular customers will be able to buy it. Any current models are strictly prototypes for testing, and not models ready for mass production.
Aeromobil, like Terrafugia, wants to deliver genuine flying cars to the market, as imagined in the movies. And, right now, it looks as if the company will get there first.
What’s so interesting about their product is that they say that it can take off practically anywhere, including on short grass verges.
There’s no need for a runway or anything like that, just enough space to get up to the critical takeoff speed. Aeromobil says that it will be able to sell its flying car, when it’s released, for $400,000, or about the price of a Lamborghini Aventador. It might not have the styling of the Aventador, but it can certainly do something the supercar can’t.
Moller was founded more than 40 years ago, before Harry Potter and the Back To The Future films made flying cars famous. Although the company has invested heavily in older technologies, it’s focus is on creating something absurdly powerful and convenient.
The Skycar, the 5th generation prototype, can travel more than 400 miles and reach speeds of up to 122 mph in the air. However, investors aren’t sure that the company has wings. Since 2003, the share price has fallen by more than 95 percent, suggesting that Moller might not be a market leader in the future.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that some big companies, including Uber, are looking at ways to serve customers better with flying vehicles. Technology is making it possible, so now the race is on to find a business model that works for customers. Just think, you could soon be flying to work in the morning.