Google co-founder Larry Page is reportedly funding not just one, but two competing teams to turn the decades-old vision of flying cars into reality … to the tune of $100 million.
That’s the top line from Bloomberg Businessweek’s lengthy report about the race to field flying-car concepts. The claim is based on interviews with people familiar with Zee Aero and Kitty Hawk, the two Silicon Valley operations linked to Page. The bottom line is just as intriguing: The flying-car race pits those two ventures against slightly less stealthy companies such as Joby Aviation, Terrafugia, E-volo, AeroMobil and Airbus.
The ultimate Jetsons dream seems to be coming closer to reality. “Over the past five years, there have been these tremendous advances in the underlying technology,” NASA engineer Mark Moore is quoted as saying. “What appears in the next five to 10 years will be incredible.”
Flying-car fans have been saying that for a long time, but word that Page is involved improves the odds that the technology, at least, will be ready for prime time.
Zee Aero was founded in 2010, and for years rumors have been circulated about the company’s Google connection. Today’s Bloomberg report firms up the connection, not to Google but to Page. It’s written by Ashlee Vance (author of the definitive Elon Musk biography) and Brad Stone (author of the definitive Jeff Bezos biography).
They report that Page has been funding Zee since its founding but didn’t want that to be known. To keep the secret safer, Zee employees reportedly referred to Page by a code name, GUS – the “guy upstairs” whose quarters on the second floor of the Mountain View building were furnished with expensive paintings and a decorative SpaceX rocket engine.
Photos of Zee’s subscale prototype, festooned with electric-powered propellers, emerged in 2013. Prototypes with different designs have been spotted more recently at Hollister Municipal Airport, about 45 miles southeast of San Jose, Calif.
Kitty Hawk was established last year, just half a mile away from Zee’s offices, apparently to give a competitive boost to Page’s vision. That company’s president is Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor and Google veteran who has long pioneered autonomous vehicles. Kitty Hawk is said to be working on a completely different craft that looks like a giant quadcopter drone. (For what it’s worth, both Zee and Kitty Hawk are hiring.)
Although the technical challenges related to flying cars could be largely solved in the next few years, they aren’t the biggest hurdles obstructing the flight path: Regulatory and safety issues are likely to keep us from having an airplane in every garage. But electric aircraft like the ones that Zee, Kitty Hawk and other ventures are developing could lead to FAA-regulated air-taxi services that provide cheaper and faster rides than Uber, at least in traffic-congested areas like Silicon Valley and even downtown Seattle.
Speaking of which, it’s interesting to note that all this flying-car activity is taking place in Silicon Valley rather than the original Jet City. Your move, Seattle.
In an email to GeekWire, Google declined to comment on the Bloomberg Businessweek report. Zee has not yet responded to GeekWire’s inquiry, but if and when it does, we’ll add whatever we find out.