He is already arguably the single most influential man in the online world but it looks as if Google-founder Larry Page has similar ambitions around the latest technology in the world of transport too. It has recently been revealed that the CEO of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) has quietly been buying up controlling stakes in several of the start-ups at the cutting edge of developing flying car technology.
It is well known that big transportation technology and aerospace companies such as Uber and Airbus have been allocating resources to the development of flying car-type vehicles and the infrastructure that would be a necessary component to their use. However, with the prototypes that have been developed by Uber, Airbus and Joby, a high profile start-up in the space, are largely at the experimental stage, Page appears to have stolen a march on his competitors.
Online tech and science media ‘The Verge’ recently reported that they had uncovered Page’s involvement in a company named ‘Opener’, a well-advanced flying car start-up that has just come out of ‘stealth mode’. That makes Opener the third such company that Page has invested in with the tech titan already known to hold stakes in Kitty Hawk and air taxi project ‘Cora’.
Page now controls three of the world’s most advanced flying car projects. With the Google boss attempting to adopt a low profile approach to the acquisitions, refraining from discussing his investments directly, observers are being left to speculate what his game plan is. The multiple nature of the investments is apparently not with a view to merging companies or achieving synergies from cross-over. Indeed, while Closer and Kitty Hawk both have offices in Pablo Alto a few blocks from each other, the companies are said to have virtually no contact and compete for the attention and funding of their mutual lead-investor. That leaves two options. Either Page is hedging his bets by investing in several promising potential market leaders developing different kinds of technology and vehicle or he is hoping to dominate a potentially huge new market.
But how close is the genuine prospect of commercially operating flying cars? Most experts believe that, unlike self-driving cars, airborne vehicles becoming a common site above our cities is likely something that is still decades away. Battery technology is one major bottleneck. Flying cars are likely to be electric if they are to be low-noise emission and economically viable. But flying requires a lot of energy and current battery technology is not able to provide enough power for flights that represent more than a ‘hop’ if the vehicle is to be able to take off and land vertically. The latter quality is considered to be necessary if flying cars are to be practical within an urban context. The kind of battery that would provide a few hours of flight time would currently be so heavy that it would be self-defeating.
The necessary regulatory regime and ‘airway’ code is also a considerable obstacle to be overcome. In Japan, Tokyo’s administration has formed an advisory council to start preparing a regulatory framework with a view to running flying car pilot projects during the 2020 Olympics to be hosted in the city. However, any mass-scale adoption of the technology will obviously be problematic in terms of creating a safe set of rules and regulations. No city administration other than Tokyo has really given serious consideration to a future with flying cars at this point in time.
Page’s adoption of the technology sector clearly demonstrates a belief that flying cars will one day become a reality. In recent years, technology developments often happen at a pace much quicker than expected. However, at this point it would seem unlikely that flying cars will be taking to the skies in significant numbers in the immediately foreseeable future.