Traf­fic Be­low

Marty McFly, meet the en­gi­neers build­ing cars that re­ally fly

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - CONTENTS - Lo­ca­tion Mostly U.S. Technology Avi­a­tion Story Ash­lee Vance and Brad Stone

Three years ago, Sil­i­con Val­ley de­vel­oped a fleet­ing in­fat­u­a­tion with a startup called Zee.Aero. The com­pany had set up shop right next to Google’s head­quar­ters in Moun­tain View, Calif., which was cu­ri­ous, be­cause Google tightly con­trols most of the land in the area. Then a reporter spot­ted patent fil­ings show­ing Zee.Aero was work­ing on a small, all-elec­tric plane that could take off and land ver­ti­cally—a fly­ing car.

In the hand­ful of news ar­ti­cles that en­sued, all the startup would say was that it wasn’t af­fil­i­ated with Google or any other technology com­pany. Then it stopped an­swer­ing me­dia in­quiries al­to­gether. Em­ploy­ees say they were even given wal­let­size cards with in­struc­tions on how to de­flect ques­tions from reporters. Af­ter that, the only in­for­ma­tion that trick­led out came from ama­teur pi­lots, who oc­ca­sion­ally posted pic­tures of a strange-look­ing plane taking off from a nearby air­port.

Turns out, Zee.Aero doesn’t be­long to Google or its hold­ing com­pany, Al­pha­bet. It be­longs to Larry Page, Google’s co-founder. Page has per­son­ally funded Zee.Aero since its launch in 2010 while de­mand­ing that his in­volve­ment stay hid­den from the public, ac­cord­ing to 10 peo­ple with in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the com­pany. Zee.Aero, how­ever, is just one part of Page’s plan to usher in an age of per­son­al­ized air travel, free from grid­locked streets and the cramped in­dig­ni­ties of mod­ern flight. Like Jeff Be­zos and Elon Musk, Page is us­ing his per­sonal for­tune to build the fu­ture of his child­hood dreams.

The Zee.Aero head­quar­ters, lo­cated at 2700 Brod­er­ick Way, is a 30,000-square-foot, two-story white build­ing with an ugly, blocky de­sign and an in­dus­trial feel. Page ini­tially re­stricted the Zee.Aero crew to the first floor, re­tain­ing the se­cond floor for a man cave wor­thy of a multi­bil­lion­aire: be­d­room, bath­room, ex­pen­sive paint­ings, a tread­mill-like climb­ing wall, and one of SpaceX’s first rocket engines—a gift from his pal Musk. As part of the se­crecy, Zee.Aero em­ploy­ees didn’t re­fer to Page by name; he was known as GUS, the guy up­stairs. Soon enough, they needed the up­stairs space, too, and en­gi­neers looked on in awe as GUS’s paint­ings, ex­er­cise gear, and rocket en­gine were hauled away.

Zee.Aero now em­ploys close to 150 peo­ple. Its operations have ex­panded to an air­port hangar in Hol­lis­ter, about a 70-minute drive south from Moun­tain View, where a pair of pro­to­type air­craft takes reg­u­lar test flights. The com­pany also has a man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity on NASA’s Ames Re­search Cen­ter cam­pus at the edge of Moun­tain View. Page has spent more than $100 mil­lion on Zee.Aero, say two of the peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the com­pany, and he’s not done yet. Last year a se­cond Page-backed fly­ing-car startup, Kitty Hawk, be­gan operations and reg­is­tered its head­quar­ters to a two-story office build­ing on the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac about a half-mile away

Did you know? Los An­ge­les-based en­gi­neer Dezso Mol­nar is plan­ning to start a fly­ing-car rac­ing league in 2017

from Zee’s of­fices. Kitty Hawk’s staffers, se­questered from the Zee.Aero team, are work­ing on a com­pet­ing de­sign. Its president, ac­cord­ing to 2015 busi­ness fil­ings, was Se­bas­tian Thrun, the god­fa­ther of Google’s self-driv­ing car pro­gram and the founder of re­search divi­sion Google X. Page and Google de­clined to speak about Zee.Aero or Kitty Hawk, as did Thrun.

Fly­ing cars, of course, are ridicu­lous. Lone-wolf in­ven­tors have tried to build them for decades, with lit­tle to show for their ef­forts be­sides dis­ap­pointed in­vestors and de­pleted bank ac­counts. Those fail­ures have done lit­tle to lessen the yearn­ing: In the nerd hi­er­ar­chy of needs, the fly­ing car is up there with down­load­able brains and a work­ing holodeck.

But bet­ter ma­te­ri­als, au­tonomous nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems, and other tech­ni­cal ad­vances have con­vinced a grow­ing body of smart, wealthy, and ap­par­ently se­ri­ous peo­ple that within the next few years we’ll have a self-fly­ing car that takes off and lands ver­ti­cally—or at least a small, elec­tric, mostly au­tonomous com­muter plane. About a dozen com­pa­nies around the world, in­clud­ing star­tups and gi­ant aero­space man­u­fac­tur­ers, are work­ing on pro­to­types. Fur­thest along, it ap­pears, are the com­pa­nies Page is qui­etly fund­ing. “Over the past five years, there have been these tremen­dous ad­vances in the un­der­ly­ing technology,” says Mark Moore, an aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer who’s spent his ca­reer de­sign­ing ad­vanced air­craft at NASA. “What ap­pears in the next 5 to 10 years will be in­cred­i­ble.”

North­ern Cal­i­for­nia in par­tic­u­lar has had a long fas­ci­na­tion with fly­ing cars. In 1927 a now mostly for­got­ten en­gi­neer named Alexan­der Weygers first be­gan think­ing up the de­sign for a fly­ing saucer that could zip be­tween rooftops. In 1945 he re­ceived a patent for what he de­scribed as a “dis­copter,” a ver­ti­cal take­off and land­ing (VTOL) ma­chine with room in­side for pas­sen­gers to walk around, cook, and sleep. He de­picted smaller ver­sions land­ing in pods atop build­ings in down­town San Fran­cisco. No dis­copters were built, though it’s be­lieved that the U.S. Army, which paid vis­its to Weygers’s com­pound in Carmel Val­ley, Calif., tin­kered with a pro­to­type.

To­day, the world’s premier fly­ing-car en­thu­si­ast is Paul Moller, 79, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis. Fifty years ago, when he was teach­ing me­chan­i­cal and aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer­ing, he de­vel­oped a spe­cific vi­sion: an air­craft you could park in your garage, drive a few blocks to a small run­way, then take sky­ward. He tested his first pro­to­type, the XM-2, in 1966. The XM-2 re­sem­bled a fly­ing saucer with a seat at its cen­ter pro­tected by a plas­tic bub­ble. It man­aged an al­ti­tude of 4 feet, while grad­u­ate stu­dents held it steady with ropes. “We were wor­ried if the ma­chine got out of con­trol, we might kill a few peo­ple,” Moller says.

In 1989 his M200X made it to 50 feet above the ground. Then came the M150 Sky­car, the M400 Sky­car, the 100LS, the 200LS, the Neuera 200, and the Fire­fly, all vari­a­tions on the same Jet­so­nian idea. In Jan­uary 2000, Moller gave a speech on fly­ing cars at the Palo Alto Re­search Cen­ter (PARC), the birth­place of the graph­i­cal user in­ter­face and, for nerds, sa­cred ground. Af­ter­ward, an en­gi­neer in his late 20s walked up and said he was in­ter­ested in the con­cept but was

skep­ti­cal that street-wor­thy per­sonal air­craft were tech­ni­cally fea­si­ble; at the time, Moller didn’t rec­og­nize young Larry Page.

Moller kept try­ing. He says he burned through more than $100 mil­lion de­vel­op­ing his de­signs and de­clared per­sonal bank­ruptcy in 2009.

That same year, Moore, the NASA re­searcher, pub­lished a pa­per de­scrib­ing a con­cept plane called the Puf­fin. Moore’s big idea was to use elec­tric mo­tors, which are qui­eter and safer and have far fewer mov­ing parts than internal com­bus­tion engines or con­ven­tional tur­bines. “By go­ing to elec­tric propul­sion, you get rid of the vast ma­jor­ity of the com­plex­ity, cost, and un­re­li­a­bil­ity,” Moore says. “This is why com­pa­nies look­ing at this area aren’t in­sane.” Moore cred­its Musk’s Tesla and other au­tomak­ers with ad­vanc­ing the technology. “Elec­tric mo­tors were mostly used in in­dus­trial set­tings where they were sta­tion­ary, and no one cared about their weight that much,” Moore says. “It wasn’t un­til the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try got in­ter­ested that they started to get more light­weight.”

Car­mak­ers in­vested in other areas, too, that are help­ful for build­ing small elec­tric planes, par­tic­u­larly bat­ter­ies and the semi­con­duc­tors that con­trol them. Self-driv­ing sys­tems, like the kind Google uses in its Koala cars, are per­haps a decade away from main­stream use on the roads, but they may al­ready be good enough for the skies. “Self-fly­ing air­craft is so much eas­ier than what the auto com­pa­nies are try­ing to do with self-driv­ing cars,” Moore says.

Moore’s pa­per cir­cu­lated, rekin­dling ex­cite­ment. Some­time in 2009, a small group of en­gi­neers had be­gun meet­ing in Sil­i­con Val­ley to dis­cuss fund­ing an elec­tric-plane project. One of them was Joe Ben Be­virt, a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer and en­tre­pre­neur who had stud­ied un­der Moller at UC Davis. An­other was Ilan Kroo, an aero­nau­tics and as­tro­nau­tics pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford. And an­other was Page. Although it ini­tially looked as if they might all team up, Kroo and Page broke off to start Zee. Aero. Alone, Be­virt founded Joby Avi­a­tion, a com­pany he hopes will beat Zee. Aero to mar­ket and prove that his ef­forts with Moller—and the older man’s life’s work—weren’t in vain.

Be­virt owns a 500-acre com­pound near Santa Cruz, Calif. To get there, you turn onto idyl­lic Cal­i­for­nia State Route 1 and drive past the board­walk, a few blocks of strip malls, and 15 miles of un­de­vel­oped, windswept coastal dunes. Then you turn onto a dirt road, pass a lake and a grove of tow­er­ing red­woods, and walk through gar­dens over­flow­ing with laven­der and roses. It’s here that Be­virt has built a se­ries of work­shops, plus hous­ing for about half of his 35 em­ploy­ees.

Be­virt grew up nearby on an elec­tric­ity-free com­mune where his mom worked as a mid­wife and his fa­ther built cus­tom homes. From a young age, he learned his way around tool­boxes and con­struc­tion sites, and was an avid reader. Af­ter con­sum­ing the sci-fi clas­sic The For­ever For­mula in el­e­men­tary school, he de­cided he wanted to build the kind of per­sonal air­craft the book’s hero flew and per­suaded a friend to help. “We built lots of pro­to­types, but they al­ways crashed and burned,” he says. They shifted to cus­tom bikes.

The fly­ing-car dream stuck with Be­virt as he en­tered UC Davis in 1991 to study me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing, and he quickly found him­self work­ing for Moller, build­ing one pro­to­type af­ter an­other. Be­virt even­tu­ally con­cluded their shared dream wouldn’t be fea­si­ble un­til bat­tery and mo­tor technology im­proved. He fig­ured he’d need to wait 20 years. “Paul had been work­ing on this for 30 years, and he was 50 years ahead of his time,” he says. Be­virt got his bach­e­lor’s, and then a mas­ter’s in me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing from Stan­ford. He worked in biotech af­ter grad­u­a­tion, co-found­ing a com­pany called Ve­loc­ity11 that built robots to se­quence DNA. His next com­pany, called Joby (his child­hood nick­name), sold cam­era ac­ces­sories such as flex­i­ble plas­tic tripods. Joby turned Be­virt into a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire. In 2008 he started Joby Energy, a maker of air­borne wind tur­bines whose technology Google later ac­quired. The 20-year mark was ap­proach­ing, so in 2009 he also used some of his wealth to buy the 500 acres and start Joby Avi­a­tion. Its head­quar­ters is an en­gi­neer’s fan­ta­sy­land. The fo­cal point is a large wooden build­ing where two dozen work­ers sit at a few rows of desks jammed with com­put­ers. Aside from the clus­ters of large black mon­i­tors, the place feels more like a barn than an office. Air­craft pro­to­types hang from the ceil­ing, as does a thick climb­ing rope for ex­er­cise. In the open kitchen, abut­ting a long red­wood din­ing ta­ble in one cor­ner, a cook uses in­gre­di­ents from the nearby gar­dens to pre­pare three meals a day. While the smell of a Malaysian curry fills the room, a banjo twangs from speak­ers over­head. The man­u­fac­tur­ing hap­pens at a se­ries of build­ings about 100 yards down­hill, past gar­dens and an out­door clay pizza oven. One of the build­ings is an airy ware­house with a gi­ant oven in­side—but this one isn’t for pizza. It’s used to cure the car­bon-fiber bod­ies of the planes and looks like a Quon­set hut. For­mer mem­bers of Oracle’s Amer­ica’s Cup sail­ing team, some of the world’s lead­ing ma­te­ri­als ex­perts, over­see the cur­ing process, bak­ing the car­bon fiber at about 194F. In an­other build­ing, en­gi­neers build can­taloupe-size elec­tric mo­tors; in a third, they test elec­tron­ics; in a fourth, they put the fin­ish­ing touches on wings and other parts. Out back, there’s a large truck with an ex­tendible arm atop its trailer like a cherry picker, which hoists pro­pel­lers high into the air so en­gi­neers can per­form wind tests while driv­ing down a road at high speed. Robotic pro­to­types buzz around. Be­virt funded Joby Avi­a­tion by him­self un­til last year, when he was joined by Paul Scia­rra, one of the co-founders

of Pin­ter­est. Scia­rra grew up in New Jersey, taught him­self to code, hit it big with Pin­ter­est, then went look­ing for some­thing new to throw him­self into. He, too, con­cluded that elec­tric mo­tors and bat­ter­ies ap­peared to have ap­pli­ca­tions well be­yond the auto in­dus­try. “The goal is to build a prod­uct that im­pacts the lives of lots of peo­ple,” Scia­rra says. “Not just folks that are ama­teur pi­lots or wealthy, but ev­ery­one.”

Scia­rra and Be­virt hope to be­gin fly­ing a hu­man-scale pro­to­type plane later this year. They won’t give the ex­act spec­i­fi­ca­tions but sug­gest that it could hold, say, a fam­ily of four and travel 100 miles or so on a full charge. The ve­hi­cle looks like a plane-he­li­copter hy­brid packed with pro­pel­lers, about eight mounted on the wings and tail. For take­off and land­ing, the pro­pel­lers hang hor­i­zon­tally like a he­li­copter’s and ro­tate for for­ward propul­sion once in the air. Joby Avi­a­tion has al­ready built smaller pro­to­types and has mod­els of the plane’s body, wings, and pro­pel­lers scat­tered about the man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ties. Be­virt and Scia­rra see the ve­hi­cle taking off from park­ing garages, roofs, or areas along­side highways. They want to of­fer flights as an Uber-like ser­vice—sum­mon a plane when you need it.

The Joby air­craft looks sim­i­lar to other ve­hi­cles be­ing built around the world. In May the Ger­man com­pany E-volo con­ducted manned flights of its Volo­copter, a two-seat air­craft pow­ered by 18 pro­pel­lers. Other fly­ing-car star­tups in­clude AeroMo­bil, Lil­ium Avi­a­tion, and Ter­rafu­gia. Even Air­bus has built a two-seater pro­to­type at its Sil­i­con Val­ley labs, say two peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the de­signs.

In 2013, Red Bull held one of its Flug­tag com­pe­ti­tions in Long Beach, Calif. Flug­tag is a tele­vised spec­ta­cle where hob­by­ists see how far they can launch their home­made fly­ing ma­chines off a dock. It’s more about en­ter­tain­ment than sus­tained flight—the con­trap­tions gen­er­ally dive straight into the water, and ev­ery­one laughs. At this one, though, a group called the Chicken Whis­per­ers stunned the as­sem­bled crowd. Dressed in full-body baby-chick out­fits, the team pushed its glider off the dock and watched as it cruised 258 feet, break­ing the pre­vi­ous record of 229 feet. The chick­ens danced. They clucked. They took a swim in the water. They were all Zee.Aero em­ploy­ees in dis­guise, hav­ing fun, try­ing out some de­signs.

In the six years since its found­ing, Zee.Aero has hired some of the bright­est young aero­space de­sign­ers, soft­ware en­gi­neers, and ex­perts in mo­tor and bat­tery hard­ware. They’ve come from places such as SpaceX, NASA, and Boe­ing, and they’re all chas­ing af­ter the goal pre­sented suc­cinctly on Zee.Aero’s spare web­site: “We’re chang­ing per­sonal avi­a­tion.”

At its out­set, Zee.Aero was led by Kroo, the Stan­ford aero­space pro­fes­sor. He wrote the orig­i­nal Zee.Aero patent, No. 9,242,738, which shows a strange-look­ing one-seater air­craft with a long, nar­row body. Be­hind the craft’s cock­pit, rows of hor­i­zon­tal pro­pel­lers run along both sides of the body of the plane to han­dle the VTOL work. There’s also a wing at the back with two more pro­pel­lers that add for­ward thrust.

Zee.Aero worked on this de­sign for a cou­ple of years. Small, com­puter-con­trolled ver­sions of the air­craft were pho­tographed by reporters and hob­by­ists sitting in the park­ing lot at 2700 Brod­er­ick Way. None of the pro­to­types were big enough to fit a hu­man.

Over time, the com­pany re­al­ized this might not be the best de­sign, ac­cord­ing to three for­mer Zee.Aero em­ploy­ees. Page also grew dis­sat­is­fied with the rate of progress. In 2015, Kroo re­turned to teach at Stan­ford full time but con­tin­ued to ad­vise Zee.Aero as “prin­ci­pal sci­en­tist,” while the com­pany’s en­gi­neer­ing chief, Eric Al­li­son, took over as chief executive of­fi­cer. Un­der Al­li­son, the com­pany be­gan work on a sim­pler, more con­ven­tional-look­ing de­sign, now com­ing to life at the Hol­lis­ter Mu­nic­i­pal Air­port.

Hol­lis­ter is a city of about 35,000 nes­tled among gar­lic and ar­ti­choke farms. Its air­port is pop­u­lar among ama­teur pi­lots be­cause of fa­vor­able winds and a lack of com­mer­cial air traf­fic. There’s a flight school, a sky-div­ing busi­ness, and a few run-down build­ings. The least shabby struc­ture is Build­ing 19, which has been taken over by a dozen or so Zee.Aero work­ers.

The air­port is open for busi­ness from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on week­days, but Zee.Aero em­ploy­ees fre­quently run test flights when no one else is around. None­the­less, peo­ple work­ing at the air­port have caught glimpses of two Zee.Aero craft in re­cent months. Both have a nar­row body, a bul­bous cock­pit with room for one per­son upfront, and a wing at the back. In in­dus­try lingo, the planes are push­ers, with two pro­pel­lers in the rear. One of the pro­to­types looks like a small con­ven­tional plane; the other has spots for small pro­pel­lers along the main body, three per side. When the air­craft take off, they sound like air raid sirens.

The peo­ple at the air­port haven’t heard Page’s name men­tioned, but they long ago con­cluded Zee.Aero’s owner is su­per rich. Zee.Aero em­ploy­ees re­ceive catered lunches— some­times $900 worth of bar­be­cue from Ar­madillo Willy’s, a local chain. Re­cently, the com­pany pur­chased a $1 mil­lion he­li­copter to fly along­side the planes and gather data.

For Page, this project is deeply per­sonal. He’s been known to spend evenings with Musk, both men think­ing aloud about ways to fun­da­men­tally change transportation. Musk wants to build an up­scale elec­tric VTOL jet; Page wants the down-mar­ket ver­sion. In an in­ter­view with a Bloomberg

Busi­ness­week reporter a cou­ple of years ago, Page con­fessed that he longed to take more risks like his in­dus­tri­al­ist friend. He wanted to dab­ble with new forms of in­vest­ment out­side the con­fines of Google and back pro­jects that fo­cused on atoms, not bits. “There’s a lot of money go­ing into in­ter­net startup kinds of things, which is great,” he said. “But for some of the real prob­lems we face, I think we need other kinds of in­vest­ments, too. I have young kids, so I would like them to be safe. I’d like for pedes­tri­ans to be much safer. I’d like for blind peo­ple and old peo­ple and young peo­ple to get around.”

The for­mer Zee.Aero em­ploy­ees de­scribe the com­pany as a fun place to work but don’t down­play the se­ri­ous ex­pec­ta­tions from Page. He wants the fly­ing-car fu­ture, and he wants it now. If the at­mos­phere grew tense with Kroo’s de­par­ture, it didn’t lighten up when the Kitty Hawk team ar­rived.

Kitty Hawk has about a dozen en­gi­neers, in­clud­ing some Zee.Aero veter­ans. Oth­ers came from Aerov­elo, a startup whose claim to fame was win­ning the $250,000 Siko­rsky Prize in 2013, for build­ing a hu­man-pow­ered he­li­copter that could stay aloft for more than a minute. Kitty Hawk em­ploy­ees in­clude Em­er­ick Oshiro, who did self-driv­ing car work at Google, and David Estrada, who han­dled le­gal affairs for Google X. They all listed the com­pany as their em­ployer on LinkedIn un­til they were con­tacted by Bloomberg

Busi­ness­week, at which point they erased any men­tion of Kitty Hawk from their pro­files.

Page has drawn a line sep­a­rat­ing his two fly­ing-car teams, em­ploy­ees say. It’s com­mon for the Zee.Aero en­gi­neers to spec­u­late over lunch about what their Kitty Hawk coun­ter­parts are up to. The for­mer Zee.Aero em­ploy­ees think Page wanted to see if a smaller team could move faster, and the added pres­sure on Zee.Aero didn’t hurt. Two peo­ple say Kitty Hawk is work­ing on some­thing that re­sem­bles 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. Page once vowed to a col­league that if his in­volve­ment in the sec­tor ever be­came public, he might pull sup­port from the com­pa­nies.

Here’s hop­ing that’s not true. If noth­ing else, these pro­jects show that bold, some might say far-fetched, in­ven­tion is alive and well in Sil­i­con Val­ley. The place that spent the past decade fo­cused on social net­work apps has trained its en­gi­neer­ing pow­ers on robots, cars, and now avi­a­tion. “We were promised fly­ing cars, and in­stead what we got was 140 char­ac­ters,” a local ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist once put it. Page and his co­horts are try­ing to get us both. <BW>

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