Google's Larry Page is trying to make flying cars

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Businessweek reports on Larry Page's not-secret-anymore efforts to make the perpetually-futuristic vision of flying cars a reality. Turns out, Page is funding two flying car companies, Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk. Apparently the latter's president is Sebastian Thrun, the pioneering roboticist who drove Google's autonomous vehicle efforts. From Ashley Vance and Brad Stone's Businessweek feature:

Zee.Aero now employs close to 150 people. Its operations have expanded to an airport hangar in Hollister, about a 70-minute drive south from Mountain View, where a pair of prototype aircraft takes regular test flights. The company also has a manufacturing facility on NASA’s Ames Research Center campus at the edge of Mountain View. Page has spent more than $100 million on Zee.Aero, say two of the people familiar with the company, and he’s not done yet...

The (Hollister) airport is open for business from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, but Zee.Aero employees frequently run test flights when no one else is around. Nonetheless, people working at the airport have caught glimpses of two Zee.Aero craft in recent months. Both have a narrow body, a bulbous cockpit with room for one person upfront, and a wing at the back. In industry lingo, the planes are pushers, with two propellers in the rear. One of the prototypes looks like a small conventional plane; the other has spots for small propellers along the main body, three per side.

When the aircraft take off, they sound like air raid sirens.

The people at the airport haven’t heard Page’s name ­mentioned, but they long ago concluded Zee.Aero’s owner is super rich.

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Critiquing the flying car in 1944

During World War II, a time when most manufacturing was concentrated on the war effort and Americans were living with ration books and scrap metal drives, advertising became a very strange thing. Companies wanted to make people aware they still existed, even though they weren't currently offering much for sale and unnecessary consumption was being discouraged. More importantly, the companies wanted Americans to associate their brand name with the promise of life after the War. So, what you got, were a lot of advertisements touting what this or that company was going to do just as soon as the Germans and Japanese were defeated.

The image above comes from a 1944 advertisement by the Association of American Railroads. That room is actually the lounge car on a train — or, rather, the hypothetical lounge car on an imaginary train that might be built after the War is over (provided the development of air travel and the construction of the interstate highway system don't doom the train industry to a slow decline). Basically, you had a lot of time when companies had little more than dreams to offer, so the dreams just kept getting bigger and bigger.

At the Paleofuture blog, Matt Novak writes about this ad as part of a larger trend, and offers up some examples of how the tendency to make big promises about the future of technology was being heavily critiqued even as it happened. Novak's posts help make sense of some of the more-ridiculous branches of midcentury futurism. Read the rest