A seemingly fantastical, futuristic vision of self-piloting, flying cars ferrying people overhead may soon become a reality. A Mountain View-based company has been quietly working on autonomous air taxis that it says will give commuters a way to skip the traffic with short-range flights soaring over jammed highways.
Wisk has developed a bite-sized airplane capable of carrying up to two passengers, with the prototype model undergoing more than 1,000 test flights conducted in Hollister and in Tekapo, New Zealand. The 21-foot-long, yellow-and-white vehicle is capable of zipping around at 100 miles per hour up to 5,000 feet in the air.
While there's a whole lot of potential for how the unmanned taxis can be used -- including carrying cargo and making deliveries -- the company says its initial plan is to target commuters seeking to skip traffic.
"Wisk primarily intends to help free people from traffic, another transportation option that saves people time so they can get where they need to be," said Becky Tanner, the company's chief marketing officer. She conceded that roads hasn't been quite as congested during the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many employees to work from home, but said heavier traffic will undoubtedly return soon.
"When we were all siting on the freeway getting to work, traffic was a real problem. And traffic will come back," she said. "We are primarily focused on the commuter."
Wisk is the result of 10 years of research and development into self-flying air taxis, originally spearheaded by Google co-founder Larry Page. While development had been previously led by the company Zee.Aero, Wisk was established last year to take up the torch with the backing of Boeing, a heavy hitter in the aeronautics industry.
Boeing has been particularly helpful navigating what is essentially the creation of a whole new form of transportation, particularly one that has to squeeze into the shared airways in a way that coordinates with other flights. It also must meet safety certification requirements not just as a vehicle, but as one that can pilot itself.
Despite the excitement they could easily drum up with the prospect of self-flying taxis, Tanner said Wisk has mostly avoided the limelight. Its headquarters in North Bayshore is an easily missed office building next door to higher-profile companies like Intuit, and all the daily flights are taking place in more remote locations.
"We've been in super stealth mode for most of our journey," Tanner said. "It may not be common knowledge to folks in Mountain View that we exist."
The latest iteration of the prototype is called Cora, an all-electric, propeller-driven vehicle powered by 12 small "lift" fans arranged in front of and behind the wings. The take-off is vertical, similar to that of a helicopter, and once Cora is in the air it can transition into airplane flying, Tanner said.
The company has been reluctant to disclose when they plan to allow commercial flights to customers -- only to say they will probably start in New Zealand -- in part because of all the work that still has to be done. For one, where are the planes going to land?
Initially, Tanner said Cora plans to use existing infrastructure like helipads, airports and open areas where it's safe to touch down and take off. Eventually, the hope is to create their own structures called "vertiports," which will be used as landing pads raised off of the ground. Company officials are not disclosing what deals -- if any -- may be made with airport authorities and cities with aviation infrastructure.
Another weak spot is the battery technology that powers the plane, which doesn't give the flying taxis a whole lot of range. As it stands right now, Cora can fly about 25 miles with reserves. Some of that development is being done in house, Tanner said, but right now battery technology in general still needs to evolve to meet the needs of all-electric airplanes.
"We're very confident that we're going to be able to extend the range," she said.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle for Wisk will be convincing the public that it's safe to get into a car-turned-airplane that flies itself, thousands of feet in the air. For that, the company may have to leave behind its quiet MO and sell it to the public.
"It's one of our biggest opportunities that lie in front of us," Tanner said. "The education piece to us is so tremendously important."