Where We're Going, We Don't Need Roads

Forget autonomous cars. The next big thing is cars that fly.

That’s not George Jetson. It’s Cameron Robertson, co-lead engineer, flight-testing the Kitty Hawk Flyer prototype.
That’s not George Jetson. It’s Cameron Robertson, co-lead engineer, flight-testing the Kitty Hawk Flyer prototype.

Three years ago, in a darkened room in the heart of Silicon Valley, NASA engineers ran a simulation of a next-generation air traffic control system planned to manage a world where autonomous aircraft would routinely fly less than 400 feet above the ground.

This Jetsons-style world might consist of everything from package-delivery drones to flying cars or even autonomous airborne taxis. That will require an intelligent monitoring and control system for a future urban environment in which, as one NASA engineer described it, “the sky will be dark with drones.”

During the past decade, Silicon Valley has become the world’s center for self-driving car development. Virtually all of the world’s automakers have rushed to the Valley to establish research laboratories. Now, adding to that high-tech rush-hour traffic, a new generation of startups has begun work on aircraft that will take off and land vertically while carrying passengers for short trips in crowded urban areas.

In the race to build self-driving vehicles, the reason to head to the skies is simple, according to Sebastian Thrun, the former Stanford University roboticist who launched Google’s self-driving car program in 2009. While land-bound autonomous vehicles must avoid tens of thousands of stationary and moving objects, the chance of collisions in the air is vanishingly small, particularly when each vehicle knows the location and route of the other vehicles that surround it.

Not only do designers believe that flying cars will be safer, there is also the allure of the 15-minute trip from one end of Silicon Valley to the other. Joby Aviation, one of more than a half-dozen flying car startups based in the Valley, has stated that its goal is to offer an ultraquick trip from San Jose to San Francisco, initially for $100, but ultimately for as little as $20.

Joby, along with Kitty Hawk, financed by Google chief executive Larry Page, and Airbus’ A3 division, are the most visible of the flying-car startup design efforts now operating in the Valley.

In April, Kitty Hawk lifted the veil of secrecy surrounding its flying vehicles when it demonstrated a single-passenger flying “octocopter” sled evocative of something that Luke Skywalker might fly in a “Star Wars” movie. The Kitty Hawk Flyer, created by a team of aerospace engineers who previously designed man-powered helicopters and the fastest human-powered bicycle, is reportedly just one of the company’s designs. Video and schematics of a 10-propeller vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) craft being tested at an airfield in Gilroy, Calif., have also emerged.

The Airbus A3 division, based in San Jose, wants to become the Uber of the skies and is apparently planning to begin test flights next year.

It’s fashionable these days in Silicon Valley to bemoan the fact that while the region has long promised a flying-car future, to date it has been more successful in delivering services like Twitter.

At the same time, whether flying cars and package-delivery drones will become a reality still is being hotly debated. The current generation of drones are noisy. If the Kitty Hawk Flyer flitted over your home, it would sound a lot like your neighbor running his gas-powered lawn mower or leaf blower right overhead.

Thrun argues that sound-dampening technologies and the advent of electric-powered aircraft will vastly reduce the noise, but there is still great skepticism that human-controlled drones and passenger-carrying aircraft will be permitted to land and take off in urban neighborhoods.

But what happens when the skies fill with flying vehicles?

“I love the idea of being able to go out into my backyard and hop into my flying car,” says 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 neighbor having one.”

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