The keys to the "flying car"
Most of us grew up with The Jetsons flying car as a beloved dream. A dream that we’ve never quite realized. My mission is to unlock this vision and turn the flying car into reality.
When I say that to people, I get some interesting reactions. Excitement and enthusiasm on the one hand, and disbelief and doubt on the other hand.
Disruptive breakthroughs in technology are often preceded by doubt and even ridicule. We have all seen how new technologies appear unrealistic or even scary at first, and then we blink, and that same new-fangled technology has become common place. When innovators are enabled by visionary investors they can build momentum while these projects are still new and different. Then as the public awakens to the new reality, mass adoption occurs. Our advancement to a society with flying cars is no different.
Before we buckle into our “flying cars”, let’s set the stage.
When my grandfather Charles Lindbergh flew solo 33 hours across the Atlantic Ocean, people who flew in airplanes were often called barnstormers, daredevils, and flying fools. But after he flew across the Atlantic people who flew in airplanes were mostly called pilots and passengers. That epic long-distance flight shifted the world’s expectations about aviation. Overnight, the public now saw that airplanes could be used for travel and other commercial purposes.
That flight more than any other, jump-started the golden age of aviation.
At that moment in history, standing just before the shift in perspective happened, aviation was seen as too risky for most conservative corporations and financial institutions to become involved with. In fact, I heard that the New York Times ran an Op-Ed article prior to the departure of Charles Lindbergh’s May 20th 1927 flight from New York to Paris which argued that he should be locked up in jail as he was bound to kill himself and set aviation progress back by a decade.
The fear and resistance to change was real.
However, Grandfather ignited this revolution with the financial support a group of forward-thinking individuals in St Louis who could see the potential for air travel.
Now let’s fast forward 90 years to the present.
Air travel is now the default mode of transportation for any trip of more than a few hundred miles. The potential demonstrated by the Spirit of St. Louis has grown into an industry with a global economic impact of more than $2.7 trillion that transports more than 3.6 billion passengers every year. That handful of individuals in St Louis, along with my grandfather, changed how the entire world thinks about moving around our planet. Yet after those same ninety years, aviation is rare for short distance transportation despite increasing congestion that traps billions of people in a two-dimensional gridlock in our world’s cities.
I was fortunate to participate in another turning point in technology and aerospace. With the XPRIZE we recognized the potential for spaceflight to move beyond the province of government-sponsored programs to become a self-sustaining industry. Innovators and supporters around the world joined the race and what was once impossible is now becoming commonplace.
According to “experts” we should have failed.
People laughed at us and said it wasn’t possible, echoing the experts in 1927 who said my grandfather should be grounded. One of the XPRIZE founders Gregg Maryniak, used to say in the tough years of XPRIZE “If God had intended for us to fly into space SHE would have given us more money!” Underscoring that commercial spaceflight wasn’t so much a technology barrier as it was a financial barrier. Our unrelenting passion was the single most important thing that brought the money in and kept the dream alive.
Against long odds, we did it.
Now Musk, Branson and Bezos are building a thriving multi-billion-dollar private space launch industry. Our 9-year grueling journey is now perceived as an “overnight success” and has empowered all of us. Escape From Gravity episode 2
After the Ansari XPRIZE successfully launched a new era in spaceflight, I set my sights back toward the aviation industry. I found myself wondering about how to bring aviation to more people in more places, and how to do it sustainably.
In 2008 I saw an electric aircraft prototype and recognizing the potential, developed the Lindbergh Electric Aircraft Prize (LEAP) to incentivize companies who were building hardware and demonstrating excellence in the industry. We hosted electric aircraft symposia and education programs in the US and Europe.
When I flew my first electric aircraft I was stunned by how quiet it was.
In 2014, I partnered with electric aircraft industry veterans Dr. Pat Anderson, his students at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and Eric Bartsch. This team designed and built an all-electric eSpirit of St. Louis for R&D and noise testing.
Image above: Former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta sitting in eSpirit of St. Louis at OSH AirVenture 2017
We quickly realized that electric motors offer new possibilities for designing an aircraft. Starting with a clean sheet of paper, we can now put propulsion in many places and orientations around an aircraft and we can do it efficiently and quietly!
Suddenly that crazy, unreasonable “flying car” concept has transformed into a Personal Air Vehicle that is not only possible but inevitable.
Sign me up!
We all hate being stuck in traffic and yearn to travel directly to where we want to go, when we want to get there. Time is our most precious asset and we spend too much of it moving at a snail’s pace, taking more time to move within a city than we need to fly between cities hundreds of miles apart.
In its early days, the helicopter was heralded as the solution, but noise more than any other factor, has limited its widespread use. Traditional “flying cars” have been around since the 1950’s but they have always been an unworkable compromise. An airplane designed to be road-worthy turns into a slow, heavy, poorly-performing airplane, and a car that is airworthy becomes a complex, fragile, poorly performing car. It doesn’t work.
In summary: We frequently fly long distances, but we haven’t yet developed options for short distance flights and continue to stay mired in traffic. I want to change that. I don’t want a “flying car” or a helicopter. I want a personal air vehicle that is cleaner, quieter, more efficient, and designed to get me where I want to go, without fighting gridlock. I want a revolution in air mobility.
So, how are we going to unlock the Jetsons vision?
The technology exists thanks to the pioneering work in electric propulsion and hybrid aircraft in the past ten years. But the secret to overcoming the relentless force of gravity isn’t just technology. Grandfather used an off-the-shelf engine and relatively conventional airframe. His solution was to put them together differently than the prevailing wisdom at the time.
What else do we need?
Relentless passion. Without passion and creativity, we will never escape the gravity of the endless parade of hurdles that come while doing something truly transformative. Passion alone is just hot air, but relentless passion will help us to capture the harder to find ingredients. Exotic ingredients like consistent cash flow, a depth of knowledge, and the technical savvy to implement the technology and build the vehicles. We also need a large enough market to justify development of a new type of aircraft, and this requires looking to the needs of passengers and not just pilots.
Did I mention money? The old joke in aviation is: It’s not the coefficient of lift that makes airplanes fly – its money... If it was easy or cheap, someone would have done it already.
Introducing VerdeGo Aero.
We looked long and hard at the development pathway and concluded that we have the technology, the other hurdles are surmountable, and the market is huge. We realized that we are standing in the moment before the next revolution in air travel. What the “experts” had said was crazy, is now possible. So we founded VerdeGo Aero to apply our technology and develop a new type of airplane that is uniquely suited for quietly operating in urban areas to finally make that “Jetsons” vision a reality.
Our development is well underway, and we are building a large-scale prototype that demonstrates VerdeGo’s revolutionary approach to create a quiet, extremely reliable, economical aircraft that moves people around cities in minutes where it currently takes hours.
The challenges are not trivial.
We know how to address the technical hurdles, test and refine for a mature product. But what about the regulatory environment? Isn’t the FAA going to be a big barrier? I can’t say it will be easy to develop the regulatory environment for this industry. But the FAA is fully aware and deeply engaged with us already – unlike when we launched the XPRIZE with competitors wanting to fly privately funded ballistic rockets in US airspace! This is also a global market with mega-cities around the globe with their mega-traffic problems eager to adopt this technology.
Just as it was in history with my grandfather’s flight giving birth to the airline industry, and the XPRIZE leading to commercial spaceflight, our biggest challenge is money. It’s no surprise to anyone that aviation manufacturing is a capital-intensive business to get off the ground.
We are fortunate to have the support of visionary investors who are making the early stages of this journey possible. These partners have recognized that we are at the beginning of the next giant leap in aviation where it is still possible for an individual to make a measurable impact on the future of flight.
This is our opportunity to help shape the future of flight.
As with the previous revolutions in aerospace, there is now a brief window where small teams of innovators and the passionate individuals backing these programs are driving the future of a multi-billion-dollar industry.
I’m sure it will be yet another marathon that will eventually be looked back upon as an overnight success. A long endurance race with many hurdles to jump over. It’s going to take a lot of people with passion for the vision.
It is exciting to be a part of yet another revolution in aerospace.
I want to Escape From Gravity… want to fly along?
Erik Lindbergh, Grandson of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh is the president of VerdeGo Aero. His massively transformative purpose (MTP) is to Escape From Gravity.
Mobility challenges shouldn’t limit our ability to participate in life. My personal mobility challenge with rheumatoid arthritis disabled my freedom. Escape From Gravity episode 1
Technology enabled me another chance at mobility and that gift has made me very passionate about escaping from the gravity of life. Whether it’s simply getting up in the morning and walking on painful joints, blasting off into space, or building a disruptive industry – the practice of launching keeps my spirit alive. This is why I’m so excited about VerdeGo Aero helping us all escape from gravity with greater freedom and mobility.