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Your Terrible Work Commute May One Day Be Solved by Personal Aircraft

Suppose you could hover above the typically bumper-to-bumper Interstate 405 freeway in Los Angeles, fly through the air to your destination, and float down to the ground.

“Wouldn’t that be amazing?” asks Sebastian Thrun with a grin.

Thrun, the entrepreneur behind projects at Google X and Udacity, is now CEO of Kitty Hawk, a Mountain View, Calif. company focused on helping people ditch their private cars for private aircraft. Call them “flying cars” if you will—Thrun and company prefer “personal aircraft,” since there are no wheels—but the idea aims to do away with everything that a commuting worker faces every morning: gas, roads, traffic, even the car itself.

Thrun and colleague Cameron Robertson, Kitty Hawk’s product director, took the stage at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit in Beverly Hills, Calif. to outline their vision of a car-free future, and there was nary a word about trains, streetcars, or buses. “What if you could take all the traffic lags and jams away? What if you could cross the Lincoln Tunnel in three minutes?” Thrun asked the audience. (The innovator is a fan of rhetorical questions.)

Kitty Hawk's Sebastian Thrun and Cameron Robertson with Bloomberg Television's Emily Chang at the 2017 Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Kitty Hawk’s Sebastian Thrun and Cameron Robertson with Bloomberg Television’s Emily Chang at the 2017 Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit in Beverly Hills, Calif.Andrew Nusca/Fortune
Andrew Nusca/Fortune

You may one day do it with the Flyer, Kitty Hawk’s forthcoming personal aircraft. At less than 254 lbs., it’s an “ultralight” aircraft expected to arrive to market in 2018 that turns an age-old question on its head. “The flying car is this community idea that everyone has expected for 30 years,” Robertson said. But it turns out that a “roadable” airplane isn’t right. A plane someone could daily drive? Now that’s the ticket.

The Flyer, more of a hovering pod than a plane, requires no pilot license or certification. “The key is Flyer is a product that we can build and sell now,” Robertson noted. It’s initially recreational in nature. “Cars used to be recreational when they came out,” Thrun said. It flies over water and land and the goal is to make it fly for about half an hour—a home-to-work commute for many Americans. And it’s one of many crazy ideas brewing at Kitty Hawk (inventions made by its employees at previous companies include a bird-like flapping aircraft and an 89 m.p.h. human-powered vehicle) that aim to eliminate traffic congestion, reduce roadways, green cities, and perhaps—as Silicon Valley so often aims to do—make the world a better place.

“Crazy is a word that comes up occasionally,” Thrun said. “There are a lot of things possible that are counterintuitive.” And besides, he added: “If every person flies every day, there would be no traffic jams anymore.”