New Zealand-based Martin Aircraft Company’s flagship product is an unconventional flying machine: a jetpack that might seem like a prop from a sci-fi movie, were it not for the fact that it’s well on the road to commercialization.
In October, New Zealand’s civil aviation authority cleared the company’s Prototype 12 model jetpack for manned flights. The fan-propelled jetpack, when shown in June at the Paris Air Show, could soar almost 1,000 meters and fly up to half an hour. The company’s jetpacks are expected to become commercially available sometime in the second half of 2016.
The jetpack’s development is one example of the big ideas and big bets being made across transportation-focused enterprises, where companies like Martin Aircraft are racing to the far edges of what’s possible. We live on the precipice of a time when cars will be “fully autonomous in the long term”, according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk. In a call with electric vehicle shareholders this month, he gave it 15 to 20 years.
The Guardian reached out to a few of these innovators to get a sense of where the future of transportation is headed. We asked how they’re addressing the inherent technical challenges and why they decided to get into this space in the first place. What we found is strong optimism for a near future where strapping on a jetpack could be as normal as getting behind the wheel.
Martin Aircraft CEO Peter Coker knows his business might appear to be built on a fantastically improbable vision.
“It was my son who persuaded me to join the company,” Coker said, despite the challenges. “We were on holiday, and my son, who works for a boutique investment company in London, rightfully pointed out: ‘Why wouldn’t you want to be involved in the biggest change in aviation in the last century?’”
In a hurry to get their jetpacks to market, 2015 has been something of a defining year for the company, which has in recent months been locking up agreements, partnerships and showing off the design to potential customers. It has expanded to 53 people across 13 nationalities and is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
Describing the future of jetpacks, Coker envisions a “highway in the sky” or a “fourth dimension of transport”, where the average person can rapidly travel from one point to another.
“We quickly realized the utility around something like this is greater than it being just a personal jetpack,” said Coker, a former Lockheed Martin executive. “We also see an opportunity in the commercial sector – for oil and gas, mining and farming.”
The concept of a flying jetpack might sound like a hard sell to dubious investors and perhaps a bridge too far for potential partners and customers. But Coker says just seeing the thing can help clinch a sale. When his company shows a picture or video of the concept or presents a prototype in action, Coker says it “immediately triggers the dream I had when I was a kid”. In some ways, he says, getting that buy-in is the easy part.
It’s certainly less complicated than surmounting the inherent technical challenges that come with building a system that includes a gas engine and two fans that provide the needed lift.
“When you take people through the philosophy of how it operates – like all good innovations, it’s a complicated delivery that looks simple – they get it,” Coker says. “They get the utility of it, and every time we go present it somewhere, someone also comes up with some different way to use it.”
Transportation innovations like the jetpacks are taking on a variety of other forms – some incremental, some groundbreaking.
Driverless car technology is one of the hottest sectors at the moment, with manufacturers from Ford to Mercedes-Benz making driverless tech plays. Sensors and assistive capabilities were also among the themes of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America’s Rethinking Transportation for the Next 30 Years summit in October in Washington DC.
The push toward autonomy is at the heart of many current transportation breakthroughs. In Tesla’s third quarter shareholder letter released 3 November, the company wrote that, “Our customers drove their cars almost 250m miles this quarter, for a total of nearly 1.5bn miles to date.” Tesla, the letter goes on, is looking forward to the day “when we can tell you how far our cars have driven our customers”.
Such a future is a foregone conclusion to Italian engineer and industrial designer Tommaso Gecchelin. He’s sketched out a modular concept he’s calling Next that features what are essentially electric pods that can connect and disconnect to other pods as needed, like some futuristic train that can start small and grow to expand, accordion-style.
“Based on our technology and user needs trends analysis … it’s very likely that in the future we will see a revolutionary segmentation of the transportation market,” Gecchelin says. “On one side, human-driven cars will become like horses with the advent of motorized cars. So the sports car will become prominent, while city cars will become less desired, giving more space to intelligent transportation systems that will give a more useful and fulfilling … travel and commuting experience.”
He envisions his Next concept as more than just a commuter model. It could double as a service delivery system, with businesses renting or owning pods of their own and sending them loaded with goods to a customer’s home.
Gecchelin says he started thinking about a solution oriented around “work, leisure and on-demand services [rather than] traffic optimization”. At the moment, he’s looking for funding to allow the manufacture of a first fleet to demonstrate the concept in the real world. He’s currently talks with a few German cities about potential partnerships.
“This is what robotics and self driving technologies will lead to,” he says. “Intelligence and self driving unlock the possibility for vehicles to collaborate exactly like it happens with Next.”
Other than technical hurdles, one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of such innovations is the status quo. Almost 17m new vehicles will be sold and hit the roadways in the US this year – vehicles that won’t soon be abandoned for a radical new way of getting from one point to the next.
In an attempt to innovate in harmony with the status quo, Paul Elio frames the utility of his company’s flagship vehicle to something like the iPad. In the same way the tablet hasn’t proven to be a PC killer but instead complements users’ existing range of devices, Elio sees his company’s vehicle as something like the iPad of a customer’s garage. Phoenix-based Elio Motors is taking orders now for its three-wheeled, motorcycle-like vehicle that gets 84 miles to the gallon and which it plans to release next year with an affordable $6,800 price tag.
“I think something like this has to happen,” says Elio, whose company already has more than 47,000 reservations for its vehicle. “I lived in New York City for about a year and a half, and I loved the subway system there. When you have that size population, mass transit works.
“For the rest of the country, we obviously either need to demolish all the suburbs and create big population centers or figure out a more efficient way to get from the suburbs to the downtowns where we work.”
Elio’s prototype product is technically classified as a motorcycle, but it comes with amenities like power windows, air conditioning, air bags and power lock doors, all in an enclosed body. The vehicles will be produced by Elio in Shreveport, Louisiana, at a former General Motors production facility.
“It’s got to be low-cost and high-mileage – it’s got to be both of those to work,” he says. “This is an ‘and’ choice, not an ‘or’ choice. So the concept is you buy the big vehicle for the reason you bought it, and you have an Elio too. You drive the Elio to work, and on Saturday you take out your SUV.”
Elio said he decided to launch his company and build his own unique vehicle after living through the economic shock of 2008 – in addition to his belief that the dealership-based car business is one of “gamesmanship” and economics that aren’t in the individual’s favor. One of the things he quickly learned as he set about launching Elio Motors is that few things are as fraught with difficulty for an entrepreneur as trying to start a new car company.
“There are more barriers to entry in this space than anything else I’m aware of,” Elio says. “If you take Tesla out of the discussion, the last time somebody created a successful car company in America that’s still running was Walter P Chrysler in 1925.”
Back during the recession, when “the price of oil was going through the roof”, Elio says he became “pissed off seeing the wealth pouring out of this country”.
“I said, I want to build a $5,000 car that gets 65 miles per gallon,” he recalls. “I had no data to back that up. We started working the problem. I still think a $5,000 car would have been a sexy number. But as the architecture started developing and we started meeting with suppliers and getting pricing, we realized this couldn’t have a lot of the features that people would expect.”
He believes the auto retail business needs to change to because dealers aren’t transparent with car costs and financing.
“I think one of the biggest problems is the business model is broken,” says Elio, who says he’s dreamed about owning a car company with his name on it since he was a young boy. “The purchase of a car is such an enormous game, which is why we have the $6,800 figure. If you know what you want and there’s no financing issue, it shouldn’t take you five hours to buy a vehicle.”
The year after Elio started his company, Denver-based David Brody was setting off down his own path. His startup, XTI Aircraft, has developed a concept for a six-seat business jet that flies like a normal passenger jet, but with a twist – it also takes off and lands vertically.
The company’s TriFan 600 jet uses three ducted fans for the vertical liftoff. Seconds after takeoff, two wing fans r otate forward to shift to horizontal flight. A fan mounted to the fuselage closes. When it comes time to land, the process plays out in reverse.
XTI claims the aircraft will be the first long-range vertical-takeoff commercial airplane. Other companies are also developing vertical-takeoff technology. In June, Boeing demonstrated a near-vertical takeoff of a Dreamliner.
Brody got a spark of inspiration about a decade ago when his son was 10 years old and brought home an issue of Time magazine. He recalls it included an article about an entrepreneur trying to develop a mini jet that could take off and land vertically.
“That got me thinking,” Brody says. “If you look at what’s happened over the last several years in terms of advances in materials: we have lighter materials and have significant advances in jet engines. This jet has two turboshaft engines, plus advancements in computer technology have allowed for much more controllability and stability of the aircraft as well as collision avoidance. Some of the driverless car technology will probably play a role in the aircraft of the future.”
Brody believes that the future of the moderate commercial aircraft will be in vertical takeoff and landing. The technology would eliminate the cost of building and maintaining airports with long runways. It also could make flying even more accessible by creating air taxi services that pick you up not far from your home if not at your front door.
The ultimate frontier for a transportation entrepreneur, of course, is out of this world. California-based XCOR Aerospace has started selling tickets for flights on its Lynx series of suborbital vehicles, which will take passengers and payloads on a space trip up to 330,000 feet that lasts less than an hour.
Passengers will essentially be the co-pilot on the trip – the only other passenger on the voyage besides the pilot. As such, they’ll be given a “call sign” and will be able to view space through the Lynx cockpit canopy that affords an expansive view of space.
The vehicle is powered by reusable rocket engines that run on kerosene and liquid oxygen.
“At the core of what we’ve developed at XCOR is a fully reusable rocket engine,” says board member Michiel Mol. “That may not seem spectacular, but it actually is. Every other rocket out there is one-time use only. We have what we call instant reusability. Our engine can fly, touch down and go on.”
As such, the Lynx vessel can, he says, take passengers essentially to the border of space. XCOR envisions starting test flights sometime next summer and putting them into commercial use six to 12 months after that, with commercial flights starting possibly in 2017.
The company has sold a few hundred tickets already, mostly to consumers who have a passion for space. (And who have money to spend: tickets are $100,000 per flight.)
“We see every astronaut who’s been to space has come back having had a life-changing experience,” Mol says. “Once you’re out there in the blackness of space, looking at this small blue planet with a bright green glow and a tiny layer of atmosphere around it, it looks so vulnerable from the outside. It makes you an ambassador for Earth itself.”
One of the commonalities that becomes apparent when talking to entrepreneurs like these is how they regard their ambitions as inevitabilities.
All of them – and no doubt others in the transportation space – view the status quo when it comes to the way we get from here to there today as untenable, that something has to change – and that jetpacks and suborbital vessels are far less of a risky bet than doing nothing or making small tweaks to existing concepts.
Mol says the future of transportation also involves ideas and designs we likely can’t even conceive of today, because the needs of tomorrowwill be so extraordinary.
“I think mankind is always trying to find its boundaries and go farther,” he said. “I think in the faraway future we’ll be living on multiple planets as a species. I’m convinced of that, yes. Probably not in our lifetime, though.”
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