Larry Page’s Flying Car Failure Is a Lesson For Us All

For such an ambitious project, the announcement of the end of flying car startup Kitty Hawk Corp. it was surprisingly short. A single post on the company’s LinkedIn page on Wednesday read: “We have made the decision to discontinue Kittyhawk. We are still working out the details of what comes next.”

The news was met with surprise by rival companies. Founded in 2010, Kittyhawk realized early on that it needed to make a plane as nimble as a car, rather than bolting wings onto a car. He helped pioneer a new type of aircraft called eVTOL, or electric vertical takeoff and landing — essentially a cross between a drone and a light plane — and hopes ran high when deep-pocketed Google co-founder Larry Page got involved.

The dream was not to come true. Details of what went wrong with Kittyhawk have not been made public, but there are at least three sobering lessons to be learned from its closure.

Technology is not moving in the direction we expect.

Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel highlighted the banality of technology evolution when he said in 2013 that “We wanted flying cars and got 140 characters instead,” referring to the character limit for tweets at the time.

In the 20th century, people viewed the future through the exciting lens of science fiction: robot housekeepers from the Jetsons; or glass-domed houses and “diet pills” from the 1950 comic “Closer Than We Think”; or flying cars from Back To The Future II.

But predicting the path of technology is difficult when our only point of reference is the present, which is why Marty McFly uses a fax machine in the film’s future world, and why Arthur Radebaugh’s 1950s comics include items like paper and pens to write “electronic Christmas cards’. ” Then the concept of digital information was impossible to understand.

Digitally networked information eventually became the greatest technological leap forward of the 21st century, an invisible force that put tiny, addictive computers in everyone’s pockets and rewrote the dynamics of democracy itself.

Trying to predict which technology will be so impactful next is still just as difficult to understand. It could be decentralized crypto networks that give everyone a piece of the web3, or a radically different kind of personal computing device, like smart contact lenses that project digital images onto our eyeballs. Silicon Valley thrives on pursuing the bold ideas of eccentric entrepreneurs, but the fact is that the biggest ambitions are often too difficult to realize.

There’s a well-known trope among Googlers that’s deeply ingrained in the company’s culture: Failure is good. The head of Alphabet Inc.’s X division, the company’s skunkworks R&D lab for churning out radical technology ideas, said in 2016 that the unit killed about 100 projects in a year and celebrated “fast failure” . When a team completes a project, it will receive applause from its peers, X CEO Astro Teller said. “Hugs and high fives from their manager,” he added. “They get a raise for it.” (They could also get away with it thanks to Google’s $200 billion ad machine.)

This is the natural process of turning a revolutionary idea into a blockbuster hit. But there were few hits at X, and high-profile projects like Google’s augmented reality glasses, smart contact lenses for diabetics or balloons that could deliver Internet access to the developing world were shut down. It’s easy to be drawn in by the thrill and promise of projects like flying cars—not least when breathless stock traders insist their success is just around the corner—but they’re called moonshots for a reason. When technology is difficult to build, it is much less likely to succeed.

Big name backers don’t necessarily solve big engineering challenges.

While it’s unclear exactly what went wrong with Kittyhawk, the company likely failed to solve some fundamental engineering puzzles. One of its models, for example, suffered a series of fires because engineers had cut out the protective shielding used in lithium-ion car battery cells and bound the cells together with tape, according to a 2019 investigative report by Forbes, increasing the risk from battery ignition.

Engineers who raised safety concerns were also rebuffed by management, which was eager to get the company’s planes to market, according to Forbes. Kitty Hawk declined to comment on the Forbes report.

Kitty Hawk has raised $75 million from investors including Page, according to Pitchbook, a market intelligence firm. But Page’s wealth and ties to Google weren’t enough to keep the company alive. Nor was the stigma of being named after the town in North Carolina where the Wright brothers conducted their first flight experiments. But someone will make eVTOL a reality, most likely as a kind of flying taxi operated by an airline or ride-sharing company. Boeing and Airbus are building them, as are Uber and a number of smaller companies just as keen to crack the puzzle.

As much as a billionaire backer inspires confidence, it doesn’t make a very ambitious project more feasible. Page’s Kitty Hawk project made this all too clear.

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Parmy Olson is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is the author of We Are Anonymous.

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