CLEARLAKE, Calif. — On a recent afternoon, an aerospace engineer working for a small Silicon Valley company called Kitty Hawk piloted a flying car above a scenic lake about 100 miles north of San Francisco.
Kitty Hawk’s flying car, if you insisted on calling it a “car,” looked like something Luke Skywalker would have built out of spare parts. It was an open-seated, 220-pound contraption with room for one person, powered by eight battery-powered propellers that howled as loudly as a speedboat.
The tech industry is fond of disrupting things, and lately the automakers have been a big target. Cars that use artificial intelligence to drive themselves, for example, have been in development for a few years and can be spotted on roads in a number of cities. And now, coming onto the radar screen, are flying machines that do not exactly look like your father’s Buick with wings.
More than a dozen startups backed by deep-pocketed industry figures like Larry Page, a Google founder — along with big aerospace firms like Airbus, the ride-hailing company Uber and even the government of Dubai — are taking on the dream of the flying car.
The approaches by the companies vary and the realization of their competing visions seems far in the future, but they have one thing in common: a belief that one day regular people should be able to fly their vehicles around town.
There are challenges, with both the technology and government regulations. Perhaps the biggest hurdle will be convincing the public that the whole idea isn’t crazy.
“I love the idea of being able to go out into my backyard and hop into my flying car,” said 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.”
Kitty Hawk, the company backed by Page, is trying to be one of the first out of the gate and plans to start selling its vehicle by the end of the year.
The company has attracted intense interest because of Page and its chief executive, Sebastian Thrun, an influential technologist and self-driving car pioneer who is the founding director of Google’s X lab.
During his recent test flight, Cameron Robertson, the aerospace engineer, used two joysticklike controls to swing the vehicle back and forth above Clear Lake. The flight, just 15 feet above the water, circled over the lake about 20 or 30 yards from shore, and after about five minutes Robertson steered back to a floating landing pad at the end of a dock.
The Kitty Hawk Flyer is one of several prototypes the startup, based in Mountain View, Calif., is designing. The company hopes to create an audience of enthusiasts and hobbyists, who can now pay $100 to sign up for a $2,000 discount on the retail price of a Flyer to “gain exclusive access to Kitty Hawk experiences and demonstrations where a select few will get the chance to ride the Flyer.”
Batteries are an issue. While electric propeller-driven motors seem promising, today’s battery technology cannot support flights of a reasonable distance.
“How is this going to work? I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but we can’t even take our cellphones on airplanes today because of fears about battery fires,” said Missy Cummings, the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University.
And don’t forget that flying cars will not be able to pull to the side of the road in an emergency, said John Leonard, a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
“Silicon Valley is full of very smart people, but they don’t always get the laws of physics,” he said. “Gravity is a formidable adversary.”