Google co-founder and CEO of Google parent company Alphabet Larry Page personally, and quietly, funded two startups—Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk—focused on creating the long-imagined future technology that every kid hopes to grow up and find a reality: the flying car.
An extensive June 9 profile by Bloomberg tells the story of Page’s growing interest in the area, early efforts by others and, eventually, Page’s creation of two companies, set a half-mile apart but entirely separate, seemingly with the motive that each might drive the other.
Neither Page nor employees of the companies will publicly comment on the companies or their efforts. Below is a summary of the article and three companies that are hoping, within the next decade, to make so many dreams a reality.
In 2000, Paul Moller, an aeronautical engineer and professor emeritus at the University of California at Davis, gave a talk on flying cars at the Palo Alto Research Center—for which a young Larry Page was in the audience. In 2009, JoeBen Bevit, a mechanical engineer, entrepreneur and former student of Moller’s, founded Joby Aviation in Santa Cruz, Calif., with the hope of putting many of Moller’s theories into practice and beating the competition to market.
Bloomberg describes Joby Aviation’s headquarters as an “engineer’s fantasyland.” It’s a 500-acre compound with a barnlike office and a series of out-buildings housing various focus areas, from a carbon-fiber-baking oven—manned by former members of Oracle’s America’s Cup sailing team—to one for “cantaloupe-size electric motors,” parts testing and flying-car wings.
Elon Musk, the CEO of both Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has been credited with understanding the need to lighten electric motors and to advance the technology, and Joby Aviation’s sister company, Joby Motors, complements its working, helping to put it “in a unique position to create a new generation of electric personal aircraft,” the company says on its site.
Joby Aviation has shown off three designs: the Joby S2, a two-seat, fixed-wing aircraft with 12 propellers that Joby says “requires five times less energy than conventional auto transportation at five times the door-to-door speed”; the sleeker, smaller Lotus, which features two-bladed rotors mounted on its wingtips, as well as a tilting tail rotor; and the LEAPtech, which has a more traditional appearance and asynchronous propeller technology.
Moller was recently joined at Joby Aviation by Pinterest co-founder Paul Sciarra, and the pair hope to begin flying a prototype “plane”—capable of holding a family of four and traveling 100 miles on a full electric charge—later this year.
Located in Mountain View, Calif., suspiciously close to Google headquarters, Zee.Aero, the first flying-car company funded by Page, launched in 2010, with the goal of personalizing air travel. Its sparse Website states, “We’re designing, building, and testing better ways to get from A to B.”
According to Bloomberg, Zee.Aero now has around 150 employees and operations have spread to an airport hangar in Hollister, about a 70-minute drive south of Mountain View and where Zee.Aero employees have been testing prototypes.
In 2013, Gizmag reported that Zee.Aero was “working on a flying car concept that can take off and land vertically using a plethora of small electric motors turning flour-bladed propellers.” According to an illustration in its filed patents, one version is “narrow enough to fit in to a standard shopping center parking space.”
Perhaps the least is known about Kitty Hawk, a company started a year ago by Page, with Sebastian Thrun as its president. Thrun was the CEO and co-founder of Udacity, a Stanford University research professor and, at Google, the co-founder of Google[x]—Google’s so-called moonshot factory—and the company’s self-driving car project.
Other Kitty Hawk employees include Emerick Oshiro, who also worked on Google’s self-driving car, former Zee.Aero employees and a number of folks from Aerovelo, a startup that won the 2013 Sikorsky Prize for its creation of a 121-pound human-powered helicopter.
The former Zee.Aero employees told Bloomberg they suspect that Page “wanted to see if a smaller team could move faster.” Plus, competition doesn’t hurt. Kitty Hawk is said to be working on a prototype much like a giant version of a quadcopter drone.
“There’s no guarantee that Kitty Hawk’s or Zee.Aero’s or anyone else’s flying cars will ever take to the skies. There are still technology problems to solve, regulatory hurdles to cross, and urgent safety questions to answer,” the Bloomberg article concluded. “Page once vowed to a colleague that if his involvement in the sector ever became public, he might pull support from the companies.”