Emergence of Flying Taxis Represents Clean Tech Singularity

March 14, 2018


sin·gu·lar·i·ty –
a point at which a function takes an infinite value, especially in space-time when matter is infinitely dense, as at the center of a black hole.

Michael Liebreich – Bloomberg New Energy:

In the past fifteen years we have witnessed several pivotal points along the route towards clean energy and transport. In 2004, renewables were poised for explosive growth; in 2008, the world’s power system started to go digital; in 2012, it became clear that EVs would take over light ground transportation. Today I believe it is the turn of sectors that have resisted change so far – heavy ground transportation, industry, chemicals, heat, aviation and shipping, agriculture. One after the other, or more likely as a tightly-coupled system, they are all going to go clean during the coming decades.

Astonishing progress is being made on super-efficient industrial processes, connected and shared vehicles, electrification of air transport, precision agriculture, food science, synthetic fuels, industrial biochemistry, new materials like graphene and aerogels, energy and infrastructure blockchain, additive manufacturing, zero-carbon building materials, small nuclear fusion, and so many other areas.

These technologies may not be cost-competitive today, but they all benefit from the same fearsome learning curves as we have seen in wind, solar and batteries. In addition, in the same way that ubiquitous sensors, cloud and edge-of-grid computing, big data and machine learning have enabled the transformation of our electrical system, they will unlock sweeping changes to the rest of our energy, transportation and industrial sectors. To paraphrase Marc Andreesen, Software Will Eat the Inefficient.

New York Times:

Since October, a mysterious flying object has been seen moving through the skies over the South Island of New Zealand. It looks like a cross between a small plane and a drone, with a series of small rotor blades along each wing that allow it to take off like a helicopter and then fly like a plane. To those on the ground, it has always been unclear whether there was a pilot aboard.

Well, it turns out that the airborne vehicle has been part of a series of “stealth” test flights by a company personally financed by Larry Page, the co-founder of Google and now the chief executive of Google’s parent, Alphabet.

The company, known as Kitty Hawk and run by Sebastian Thrun, who helped start Google’s autonomous car unit as the director of Google X, has been testing a new kind of fully electric, self-piloting flying taxi. This is an altogether different project from the one you might have seen last year in a viral video of a single-pilot recreational aircraft that was being tested over water, and it’s much more ambitious.

Imagine starting a network of autonomous air taxis, as Uber is planning to, but long before Uber actually does. That’s what Mr. Page is trying to do.

Until now, you wouldn’t know the air taxis in New Zealand had anything to do with Mr. Page: The planes operate there in what has been a covert project, under a company called Zephyr Airworks.

Now that project is about to go public: On Tuesday, Mr. Page’s company and the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, will announce they have reached an agreement to test Kitty Hawk’s autonomous planes as part of an official certification process. The hope is that it will lead to a commercial network of flying taxis in New Zealand in as soon as three years.

The move is a big step forward in the commercialization of this technology, which even the most optimistic prognosticators had recently bet would take another decade to achieve.

The decision to embrace the commercial use of flying taxis offers New Zealand an opportunity to leapfrog many developed countries in this area, and perhaps give it a head start over Silicon Valley, where much of the most innovative work has been taking place.

In an email, Ms. Ardern said the decision to work with Kitty Hawk was “about sending the message to the world that our doors are open for people with great ideas who want to turn them into reality.” She added, “We’ve got an ambitious target in New Zealand of being net carbon zero by 2050,” and given that the Kitty Hawk vehicle is fully electric, “exciting projects like this are part of how we make that happen.”

Back here in the United States, the move stands as a major challenge for our regulators, in particular the Federal Aviation Administration. While the F.A.A. allows test flights of autonomous vehicles, there is no path to certify and commercialize them despite a constant stream of headlines about efforts from Uber, Airbus and others. Thus far, the agency, which oversees much busier skies than New Zealand and has long been underfunded, has been slow to adopt rules for new technologies.


26 Responses to “Emergence of Flying Taxis Represents Clean Tech Singularity”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    Well in NZ, 80% of energy for electricity generation is from renewable sources. Nonetheless, flying takes an awful lot more energy than just rolling on the roads. I’d say the order should be: First solve the supply (100% renew) and then look for the toys you can afford.

  2. redskylite Says:

    I do not quite agree – the urgency of de-carbonization requires all fields and disciplines to progress in parallel. Air travel is no exception, the sooner aircraft manufacturers replace fossil fuel as the source of energy the better. in the modern world many people use the air to travel, without much thought and even less guilt of the climate impact.

    “One expert told the BBC that while there are many varieties of eVTOL in development – mostly in secret – Cora was an interesting model.

    “Vertical take-off and then changing to winged-flight is quite a feat of engineering,” said Steve Wright, associate professor in aerospace engineering at the University of the West of England.”


  3. Crowded roads, now crowded skies. Usual in the box thinking! Techno utopia isn’t everyones’ fantasy!

    • indy222 Says:

      Right, I think about that as I bike the 7 miles to my college every day. The road and bike lane is not pleasant, often having kids or ne-er-do-well’s going the wrong direction in the bike lane. I fear what would happen if indeed we got 2x or 3x or 4x the riders , and having no steel superstructure and air bags to protect when we collide. Biking is pleasant mostly because there are so few bikers.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        The gods of technological solutions are working to save you. The problem is not that bike lanes cannot accommodate 3x or 4x the number of riders or that some are ne’er-do-wells (analogous to too many people on the planet, some of them doing very destructive things).

        All you have to do is spend big bucks to “mitigate”—-and help some entrepreneur get rich! I remember seeing a piece on a “Michelinn Man” air bag suit for full body protection—-this is a start.

    • redskylite Says:

      Without wishing to appear argumentative, I must state that there is nothing particularly new about tilt wing aircraft and helicopter variants, fossil fueled variants were being designed in the 1950’s. I virtually live next door to a fossil fueled helicopter taxi business – also plenty of fossil fueled light planes employed as taxi services (and as toys of the richer) in the land of the long cloud.

      Don’t see that there will be a huge increase of passengers if they are replaced by electric power units instead of burning fossils – I’m sure they will be very expensive to own.

      We must phase out the fossil fuel engine, with either hydrogen, electric or other non-carbon producing types, sooner than later.

    • Sir Charles Says:

      Sure. Have your accidents in the sky now, no more on the ground. Takes more casualties. And a multiple of energy is used as well. A win-win.

  4. dumboldguy Says:

    bright-si-ded stu-pid-ity and hy-per-bo-le——–

    A point at which entrepreneurial greed takes an infinite value, especially in mitigating AGW impacts—-when the bullshit becomes infinitely dense, as when basically unneeded and useless schemes are introduced to distract us from the real goals.

    (see also Solar Roadway)

  5. redskylite Says:

    As someone who worked in a company testing fossil fueled aircraft of similar ilk to Cora last century, I’m flabbergasted by some of the above comments. How many people have died in fighting forest fires from the air ? How many rescues have caused problems ? can’t you see the benefits from electric powered, maybe autonomous aircraft. Isn’t this blog concerned with replacing fossils, are you supporting fossil fuels ? You want to continue pumping co2 into our atmosphere ?

    • Sir Charles Says:

      Nope. I just don’t want additional toys in the sky that consume even more energy. The article and the comments aren’t about remote controlled fire fighting aeroplanes.

      • redskylite Says:

        It seems that you just don’t like the purpose of the vehicle as a “Taxi” – it could also be used to ferry injured people in remote areas to the nearest emergency hospital The work Taxi has blinkered the concept. Use your imagination, a taxi is just another name for a vehicle, that can be used for many purposes. I disagree with your posts on this topic and now rest my case.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      We’re talking about useless flying TAXIS, not useful things like fire-fighting planes or rescue planes.

      • redskylite Says:

        Disagree – it is a concept – use your imagination, some of the projects I worked on in the 70’s, looked ridiculous but the lessons were used in grander products. Technology evolves like this.

        • redskylite Says:

          As an aside, if you have the time and interest here are some of those ridiculous machines from the ’70’s

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Love the clothes, hairstyles, and computers and control panels of the 70″s! Long live vacuum tubes!

            Speaking of evolving technology, I have a hand sized quadcopter drone I can fly around inside the house—cost $45 three years ago—-for not much more you can now buy a bigger one with a a camera that transmits back to a small screen on the control device.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          We don’t really disagree on this, just as we seldom disagree on much here—-your love for all things aviation has got us into an apples and oranges thing. Our point is that air taxis do not address the greater problem of reducing fossil fuel consumption in aviation in any significant way, just as we are not addressing the problem in ocean shipping or rail transport. Even where we are electrifying, we are still burning coal to generate too much of that electricity.

          This flying taxi business IS a distraction, will be way too expensive, and is little more than a toy and a way for Solar Roadway types to bleed $$$ out of the economy that should be spent on better projects.

          I sit here typing this as the wind howls in 45+ mph gusts outside the house, as it has been doing for days here in the Mid-Atlantic. The FOURTH nor’easter in two weeks is also aiming at New England. If we have worsening weather—-constant wind gusts, smoke from raging wildfires. dust storms from drought, and raging snowstorms all the time, before long no one is going to be flying ANYTHING anyway.

  6. redskylite Says:

    After considerable studying of the science behind climate change, I’ve been following Peter’s posts for quite a few years now, as has the esteemed DOG and quite a few other faithful too. The topics can be quite complex, diverse and politics also can magnify the issues. This post is firmly in my comfort zone. Despite the mention of Larry Page, Google and flying Taxis, I can assure the readers the cost of engineering and R&D of aviation technology has extremely large overheads. I have worked in a large engineering company that made some magnificent advances using fossil fueled energy products, “The Westland Lynx” is one hugely, shining example.
    The company hardly made a mint, external politics and relations of international customers made the fortunes of the company very volatile, and a large workforce were at the mercy of many variants, including fierce competition. Eventually the company was swallowed under Thatcher’s regime in the bleak, grey 1980’s.

    “Sir Charles” dismisses electronic power technology for the aircraft industry. Well I do not for shorter range journeys, I favor hydrogen for longer range distances. I am suspicious of bio-gas because that also releases GHG’s. I see many useful applications for electric powered aviation.

    In the Emirates (U.A.E) also EV aviation pioneering is ongoing, with Masdar City the U.A.E are at the forefront of new technologies in the Middle East and the live-ability and existence of their very country in the future depends on eliminating GHG emissions.

    I would agree with Sir Charles that the priority is to replace and shun coal, oil and methane in producing electricity. But with modern humans, transport is all important too so parallel development must take place and at a cracking pace.

    Seems everyone accepts the fossil fueled humble helicopter and light plane for local taxiing and short range transport, fire fighting, agriculture, remote rescue without comment. How about making room for newer cleaner technologies, with or without human drivers.


    • redskylite Says:

      Ha Ha very funny DOG

      Duffel Blog is an American military news satire organization featuring satirical articles reporting on national security and US military topics.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Duffel blog is a voice of sanity in a world gone mad—-I look forward to my daily DB “hit” as much as I do to Colbert, et al. I recommend it highly to all—-it’s The Onion on steroids for all things military, and some of their pieces are fall-off-the-chair funny. It helps if one has some military experience, but many of the pieces are comprehensible to those who haven’t served.

  7. redskylite Says:

    Many thanks for posting that interesting article – it’s a sorry state when you have to rely on the controversial Uber for war theatre extraction, what is the world coming to?. I was at Westland Helicopters during the U.K – Argentina Falkland war – our beloved machines were returned fuselage riddled with bullet holes of all sizes, seems all enemy ground troops fancied their chances of downing one of our lovingly built beasts. Soon repaired the damage and got them back in action, however. We lost a big (company saving) order to Argentina as well.(ah well All’s fair in love and war).

    yet more on air taxis.


  8. Chester Energy and Policy Says:

    Drone, drone-adjacent, and drone-similar technology has a lot of potential to continue to transform the clean technology space, both saving energy for things like transportation and deliveries and for aiding in the production of energy in a cheaper and more efficient manner. Check out this recent blog post for some more ways these aerial robots are breaking the mold: http://chesterenergyandpolicy.com/2018/04/09/the-drone-wars-how-commercial-drones-are-revolutionizing-energy-industries-and-environmental-efforts/

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