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Google-backed Kittyhawk is shutting down due to questions, hurdles remain

The dream of flying cars circling in the air has undergone a major change in reality.

Last week, the secretive Kittyhawk air taxi company, run by Google veteran Sebastian Thrun, announced on Twitter that he was going to “relax”. It was one of the few companies working to bring to the world a “Jetsons”-like reality, where electric cars, planes and helicopters become commonplace and offer clean-burning modes of transportation to a world of clogged and polluted streets. .

After its launch more than a decade ago, the flying car company backed by Google co-founder Larry Page garnered fanfare typical of the wacky ideas championed by Silicon Valley titans, and was largely seen as one of the more likely to make a breakthrough.

Silicon Valley [is] constantly posting these ideas about how we solve the problems of transportation and urban life with new technologies,” said Paris Marx, technology critic and host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast. “That has been a total failure.”

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Kittyhawk, like many of its competitors, made bold promises on its website to build a fleet of air taxis that are “ultra-quiet and battery-efficient” and could fly hundreds of miles on a single charge and stay nearly silent in 30 minutes. seconds from liftoff. “If anyone can do this,” the company’s site said, “we can.”

Representatives for Kittyhawk did not respond to a request for comment.

The startup’s collapse highlights the challenges in dominating air travel, experts said. Battery technology needs to advance far beyond its current state. Getting regulatory approval for flying cars will be difficult. And the infrastructure to support a world of cars and flying vehicles is a very complex challenge.

“Even Elon Musk has said: Everything works in PowerPoint,” said Peter Rez, professor emeritus of physics at Arizona State University, but “things are never going to work as advertised.”

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Investors have poured billions into startups looking to change the way people move. In 2021, air mobility startups racked up a record investment of $6.9 billion, a large chunk of which went into electric vehicles that take off and land, known as eVTOLs. The pace of funding slowed in the first half of 2022, McKinsey analysts noted.

Despite the cash, flying cars have suffered a series of big setbacks, according to media reports. A forbes research from Kittyhawk in 2019 alleged that the company was plagued by battery and safety issues.

Rez said lithium-ion battery issues will be a constant challenge for the industry. They produce power at a rate 50 times less efficient than their gasoline counterparts, requiring more to be on board, adding to the cost and weight of flying cars and planes.

Companies are holding on to the hope that battery technology will advance quickly, he said, though it’s not clear when that will happen.

In the race for a car battery that charges fast and doesn’t catch fire

Lithium-ion batteries are known to catch fire, and scientists understand that it is necessary to advance the highly flammable part of the battery, called the electrolyte, but it is scientifically difficult.

Aviation agencies, Rez added, require commercial planes to have enough reserve power to fly for at least 30 to 45 minutes beyond their destination, another challenge.

Marx noted that Silicon Valley’s moon trips are unlikely to succeed alone. Achieving widespread adoption of taxis and flying planes would require more airports, federal coordination, and large-scale infrastructure planning.

“Ultimately, these are political problems that require political solutions,” said Marx. “Technologies alone cannot solve that.”


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