Larry Page’s flying car failure is a lesson for us all

For such an ambitious project, the announcement of the end of the flying car startup Kitty Hawk Corp. was surprisingly laconic. A single post on the company’s LinkedIn page on Wednesday said, “We have made the decision to end Kittyhawk. We are still working on the details of the sequel. »

The news was greeted with surprise by rival companies. Founded in 2010, Kittyhawk realized early on that it needed to make an aircraft as nimble as a car, rather than bolting wings onto an automobile. He helped pioneer a new type of aircraft called eVTOL, or electric vertical take-off and landing – essentially a cross between a drone and a light aircraft – and hopes were high when deep-pocketed Google co-founder Larry Page , arrived on board.

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

Technology is not going in the direction we expect.

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

In the 20th century, people saw the future through the thrilling prism of science fiction: the robot housewives of the Jetsons; or the glass-domed houses and “meal pills” of the 1950s comic, “Closer Than We Think”; or flying cars from Back to the Future II.

But it’s hard to predict the path of technology when our only point of reference is the present, hence why Marty McFly used a fax machine in the film’s future world, and why Arthur Radebaugh’s comics from the 1950s featured items like paper and pens for writing “electronic Christmas cards”. “At the time, the concept of digital information was unimaginable.

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

Trying to predict which technology will have the most impact is still difficult to understand. It could be decentralized crypto networks that give everyone a piece of Web3, or a radically different type of personal computing device, like smart contact lenses that project digital images onto our eyeballs. Silicon Valley thrives on chasing the bold ideas of eccentric entrepreneurs, but the fact is that the biggest ambitions are often too difficult to achieve.

There’s a well-known trope among Google employees that’s deeply embedded in the company’s culture: failure is good. The head of Alphabet Inc.’s Division X, the company’s skunkworks R&D lab for producing radical tech ideas, said in 2016 that the unit had killed around 100 projects in a year and celebrated “rapid failure “. When a team completed a project, they received applause from their peers, said X general manager Astro Teller. “Hugs and high fives from their manager,” he added. “They are promoted for that.” (They could also get away with Google’s $200 billion advertising machine.)

It’s the natural process of turning a revolutionary idea into a resounding success. But there has been little success at X, and hyped projects like Google’s augmented reality glasses, smart contact lenses for diabetics or balloons that could transmit internet access to the developing world have been arrested. It’s easy to be seduced by the thrill and promise of projects like flying cars – especially when breathless title pickers insist their success is imminent – but they’re called moonshots for a reason. When technology is difficult to build, it is much less likely to succeed.

Big funders don’t necessarily solve big engineering challenges.

While it’s unclear exactly what went wrong with Kittyhawk, the company probably couldn’t solve some fundamental engineering puzzles. One of its models, for example, suffered a series of fires because engineers cut the protective shielding used in lithium-ion battery cells for cars and bundled the cells together with tape, according to a report. 2019 investigation in Forbes, increasing the risk of battery ignition.

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

Kitty Hawk had raised $75 million from investors including Page, according to Pitchbook, a market intelligence firm. But Page’s wealth and Google connections weren’t enough to keep the company alive. Neither had the cachet of being named after the North Carolina town where the Wright brothers held their first flight experiments. But someone will make eVTOLs a reality, most likely as some sort of flying taxi operated by an airline or ride-sharing company. Boeing and Airbus are building them, as are Uber and a host of smaller companies, which are just as likely to solve the puzzle.

As much as a billionaire financial backer inspires confidence, he does not make a very ambitious project more feasible. Page’s Kitty Hawk project made that all too clear.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

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