“We need to decide as a nation how much power the government should have over our data and over our privacy.” �Ashlee Vance
Fill ’er up
becomes clear all this remains theoretical for now. The Boom engineers have built a mock cockpit and passenger cabin out of cardboard and plywood. The black leather seats in the cabin came from Officemax, and Scholl asked his team to sit in them for a few hours each to experience what the plane will feel like. (It’s a bit cramped.) On the floor of the hangar, tape has been laid out to mimic the design of a one-third-scale plane, which Boom says it’ll build and fly by the end of next year.
The Concorde failed for a variety of reasons: expensive tickets, sonic booms that nixed overland travel, the slowdown in air travel after Sept. 11. In the years since, the other couple of efforts to build a supersonic commercial jet fizzled, and the conventional aerospace wisdom is that such projects are too expensive and risky. “Very few people really need to be somewhere in three hours,” says Jeremy Conrad, a former U.S. Air Force officer who runs hardware-focused venture firm Lemnos Labs. “And have you traveled international business class lately? It’s a great experience.”
Conrad says blustery Silicon Valley types often underestimate how tough it is to build aerospace hardware that tests the bounds of physics. There are some recent exceptions, though, most notably Elon Musk’s Spacex and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. Scholl and his team say a startup has the best shot at a project like theirs, because it can get going without loads of bureaucracy and with relatively little money. To date, Boom has raised $2.1 million and says that will last it through the development stage, though it’ll eventually take tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to take a plane to market.
Given the scale it’s planning, Boom may have a chance, says Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace consultant at Teal Group. “At 40 seats, that is kind of intriguing,” he says. “It’s possible that you would have enough routes with enough passengers to justify the development of this plane.” He’s more skeptical about the research and development costs. Boom says it’ll tweak offthe-shelf engines for supersonic flight, but Scholl won’t say how. “You kind of design a plane around an engine rather than the other way around,” Aboulafia says. “Let me know when we can hear their engine.”
Beyond next year’s test flight, Scholl isn’t providing a timeline for regular passenger travel. He says only that a U.k.-based airline he won’t name has signed a letter of intent to purchase $2 billion worth of planes when they’re ready and that he’ll keep refining the design to make trips way more affordable. “I want to live in a world where you can get anywhere in five hours for $100,” he says. “That will take decades, but I think we’ll get there.”
“You kind of design a plane around an engine rather than the other way around. Let me know when we can hear their engine.” �Richard Aboulafia, aerospace consultant at Teal Group Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook during the iphone SE launch announcement on March 21 The bottom line Aerospace startup Boom is working on what it says will be a relatively cheap jet that can fly at Mach 2.2. Later that day, the U.S. Department of Justice asked a magistrate judge to cancel a March 22 court hearing, saying it had found a way to unlock iphones without Apple’s help
“Federal and state governments may need to rethink how they regulate and license vehicles for the future,” said Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.). “We must be careful not to stymie innovation because of a lack of imagination.”
Within a decade, 1 in 8 cars sold around the world will have autonomous features, making them a $42 billion-ayear market, Boston Consulting Group estimates. Xavier Mosquet, a senior partner for BCG’S automotive practice, says perfecting the technology requires mass experimentation, which in turn requires consistent legal standards.
Improving car designs through trial and error shouldn’t be the public’s task, says John Simpson, an advocate at nonprofit Consumer Watchdog. Google’s test cars have logged more than 1 million miles on public roads over the years yet still occasionally need drivers to take over to avoid a crash. During the Senate hearing, Duke University robotics professor Mary Louise Cummings warned that self- driving cars aren’t ready for mass deployment and said NHTSA shouldn’t issue standards for them anytime soon. “There is no question that someone’s going to die in this technology,” she said. “The question is when and what can we do to minimize that.”
The feds aren’t moving at lightning speed; NHTSA has planned some public meetings over the next few months. For now, Silicon Valley lobbying group Technet says it’s tracking about 80 state bills that could affect autonomous vehicles. “Clearly some of them are going to be competing with California in terms of trying to be the research bed or the deployment bed of self-driving vehicles,” says David Strickland, a former NHTSA head who lobbies for the law firm Venable.
During March’s annual South by Southwest conference in Austin, Mayor Steve Adler welcomed other U.S. mayors to the city to show off the podlike Google cars crawling around the state capital. In Utah, state Representative Robert Spendlove has proposed legislation to study autonomous designs and says he hopes his state will be more lenient than California. He wants to be “encouraging the testing, encouraging the operation,” he says, “rather than being really heavy on regulation.” �Tim Higgins
billion The projected market for autonomous car
features in 2025 The bottom line Google is pushing for federal preemption of laws on self-driving cars, though some states are eager to get them on the road.