Larry Page, CEO of Google's parent company Alphabet, is financing Kitty Hawk, a company that is developing and testing Cora, a new kind of electric, autonomous flying taxi. Leading the company for him is Sebastian Thrun, who was the director of Google X and helped start Google's autonomous car division. Page, Thrun, and Google are now moving from autonomous cars to autonomous flying vehicles. So, if you thought the self-driving car was a game changer, self-driving flying objects, air taxis in this case, are going to be a game changer of a different, larger scale.
Business travel will be just-in time.
From a user perspective, this will bring an Uber-like flexibility and choice to users (Uber is also working on a version of a flying vehicle with Boeing). Instead of reserving a place on an airplane, you will reserve an air taxi to take you where you want, when you want (airplanes as we know them will literally become flying buses). Imagine what this will do to how you manage time, travel and availability when it comes to your business travel. No layovers, a lot more flexibility, for travel to locations that are nearby, and easier/immediate access. We will take an air taxi to areas that are too distant for a car, but too close or too small for commercial airlines. To give an example, I will take an Uber from my midtown office to a meeting on Wall Street, take an air taxi from Wall Street to a factory in New Jersey.
You will go where roads won't take you.
Now think of Africa where there are 204 km of roads compared with the world average of 944 km/1000 square km. Air taxis will also mean you can go where no roads will take you. Africa has been leapfrogging traditional infrastructures with new technology--the energy grid with solar energy; finance with banking over the phone. The next leap for the continent is going to be in autonomous flight. Drone experiments are already under way for transporting goods to remote areas--medicine and health supplies being a key one. Imagine what transporting doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers will do to remote areas in Africa will do for the economic and social development of Africa.
You will witness the design of new flying vehicle archetypes.
What should an air taxi look like? The Larry Page prototype is a cross between a drone and a plane. Is this the new archetype of what autonomous flying objects will look like or is this a fast, early prototype? First cars looked like the horse-drawn cart because that is what we knew. It took a few decades for the car to take its archetypical form. Air taxis might take decades to find their true design expression--in terms of both its form and experience.
Laurent Bouzige, designer with Toyota Europe, whose day job is to explore the future of transportation design, thinks that we will see new designs as the technology of autonomous flying is being developed and regulated. "Future air taxis might have a more integrated, less technological form that intentionally communicates an inherent feeling of trust to the users--perhaps a flying bubble where you can't see the mechanics," Bouzige says. "This new three-dimensional space offers us new poetic perspectives never explored; a new layer of mobility to think of new uses and respond to certain societal problems."
Safety still comes first.
How do you move fast, like Larry Page and his team are, in order to be the first to market, and yet still do due diligence to FAA regulations and bring a safe flying vehicle to market? How can you demonstrate that catastrophic failures will not happen in a million flights, a standard manufacturers are held to by regulations?
Norm Ovens is a senior technical leader with GE Aviation who views these vehicles as a wonderful development. They are however, just another evolution of flight, simply in a different form. As Ovens puts it, "These new vehicles introduce complex systems into areas that they haven't been before, the challenge will be to find acceptable methods to determine safe operations and acceptable development practices. Denying the hard work is not an option. The ones to ultimately succeed will meet all the requirements, not just the technological ones".