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Aurora eVTOL
An artist’s conception shows the eVTOL air taxi being developed by Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing subsidiary. (Aurora / BCG Digital Ventures via YouTube)

It’s not exactly a revelation that the Boeing Co. is interested in autonomous flight, including robo-planes that can fly people. But in a Bloomberg News interview, Boeing’s CEO says air taxis could be coming sooner than expected.

“I think it will happen faster than any of us understand,” Dennis Muilenburg, who also serves as Boeing’s president and chairman, told Bloomberg in last week’s interview. “Real prototype vehicles are being built right now. So the technology is very doable.”

The timetable for technology adoption will depend on how quickly regulators work out the “rules of the road” for autonomous flight, he said.

Fleets of air taxis could well become commonplace within a decade, Muilenburg said, but he cautioned that “it won’t be all turned on in one day.”

Boeing has plenty of dials it can use to turn on the technology gradually:

Boeing executives say the company is well into developing the technologies that could smooth the way toward  autonomous passenger flight. Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator program, for example, is working toward a series of fly-by-wire tests next year.

“You could imagine auto-takeoff, auto-taxi, things like that nature on a 787 – not, obviously, in a certified environment, but with an experimental ticket,” Mike Sinnett, vice president of product development at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told journalists last June.

Boeing is by no means the only aerospace company pushing toward autonomous flight: Its European archrival, Airbus, is also pursuing several initiatives in the field – including, most notably, its investment a Silicon Valley venture called Vahana.

Vahana conducted the first flight test of its AlphaOne electric-powered air taxi a little more than a month ago in eastern Oregon, and is aiming to have a “productizable demonstrator” ready by 2020. In an unusual twist, Boeing-backed Near Earth Autonomy is a supplier for Airbus-backed Vahana.

Other flying car ventures include Joby Aviation (which just reported a $100 million investment round), Bell Helicopter (which, like Aurora, is an Uber technology partner), TerrafugiaVerdeGo AeroKitty Hawk, China’s EHang, Switzerland’s Passenger Drone, Germany’s Volocopter and Lilium, Slovakia’s AeroMobil and Japan’s Cartivator Project.

Not everyone is gung-ho about air taxis: Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, has repeatedly questioned whether they’d be safe enough for passenger transport.

“If you love drones above your house, you’ll really love vast numbers of ‘cars’ flying over your head that are 1,000 times bigger and noisier and blow away anything that isn’t nailed down when they land,” he tweeted sarcastically last month.

So it sounds as if flying cars could be another agenda item for a Musk-vs.-Muilenburg debate, adding to the argument over whose rocket will get to Mars first.

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