Future Tense

The Flying-Taxi Startup From Google’s Co-Founder, Explained

Kitty Hawk has been flying its Cora air taxi in New Zealand since October.
Kitty Hawk has been flying its Cora air taxi in New Zealand since October. Kitty Hawk

Kitty Hawk, an aviation company backed by Google co-founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page, unveiled its autonomous air taxi, named Cora, on Monday*. The two-person passenger vehicle, which has rotors along its wings so it can take off like a helicopter and then fly like a plane without a runway, has undergone a number of “stealth” test flights in New Zealand since October. Kitty Hawk announced that it has been working with the New Zealand government to prepare a fleet of Coras for commercial use over the past 18 months. The company has also been developing a ride-hailing app for the future travel service.

So what exactly is this flying taxi capable of?

Cora runs solely on electricity, has a wingspan of 36 feet, and can fly for about 62 miles at a speed of about 110 miles per hour and an elevation of up to 3,000 feet, according to Cora’s fact sheet. It has three separate flight computers in case one fails and is equipped with a parachute for emergencies. Consumers won’t be able to buy one themselves but will rather travel on flights operated by Kitty Hawk and its subsidiary Zephyr Airworks. Cora’s initial test flights in New Zealand had been shrouded in secrecy, operating under Zephyr Airworks, which few people knew was connected to Page.

More than a dozen companies, such as Uber and Airbus, are currently developing autonomous flying taxis, though the New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin suggests that Cora may have a slight leg up on the competition. For one, Kitty Hawk’s ranks include transportation industry veterans like Sebastian Thrun, who helped launch Google’s self-driving car subsidiary Waymo during his tenure as director of Google X, and Fred Reid, who was the founding CEO of Virgin America and a former president of Delta Air Lines.

In addition, New Zealand has been friendlier to new aviation technology than other countries like the U.S., where Federal Aviation Administration regulations don’t even allow companies to make drone deliveries yet. (Domino’s began delivering pizza in New Zealand via drone in 2016.) It appears that the New Zealand government will be quicker to embrace autonomous air taxis as well; reports suggest that Kitty Hawk had a tougher time acquiring flight permissions in California.

Kitty Hawk suggests that its fleet could be operating in as soon as three years, which is the same ETA that Uber quoted for testing its Uber Elevate service back in November, with the official rollout of the service in 2023. Yet, it’s important to note that deadlines in the air taxi industry are rarely met.

Here’s Kitty Hawk’s video unveiling Cora:

*Correction, March 13, 2018: This article originally misstated the day Cora was unveiled. It was late Monday, not Tuesday.