It was sleek, cone-shaped, a little confusing — like something Hollywood would give a sci-fi villain for a quick getaway.
It wasn’t a helicopter. And it wasn’t an airplane. It was a cross between the two, with a curved hull, two small wings, and eight spinning rotors lined up across its nose and tail.
At the touch of a button on a computer screen under a nearby tent, it stirred to life, rising up from a grassy slope on a ranch in central California and speeding toward some cattle grazing under a tree — who did not react in the slightest.
“It may look like a strange beast, but it will change the way transportation happens,” said Marcus Leng, the Canadian inventor who designed this aircraft, which he named BlackFly.
BlackFly is what is often called a flying car. Engineers and entrepreneurs like Mr. Leng have spent more than a decade nurturing this new breed of aircraft, electric vehicles that can take off and land without a runway.
They believe these vehicles will be cheaper and safer than helicopters, providing practically anyone with the means of speeding above crowded streets.
“Our dream is to free the world from traffic,” said Sebastian Thrun, another engineer at the heart of this movement.
That dream, most experts agree, is a long way from reality. But the idea is gathering steam. Dozens of companies are now building these aircraft, and three recently agreed to go public in deals that value them as high as $6 billion. For years, people like Mr. Leng and Mr. Thrun have kept their prototypes hidden from the rest of the world — few people have seen them, much less flown in them — but they are now beginning to lift the curtain.
Mr. Leng’s company, Opener, is building a single-person aircraft for use in rural areas — essentially a private flying car for the rich — that could start selling this year. Others are building larger vehicles they hope to deploy as city air taxis as soon as 2024 — an Uber for the skies. Some are designing vehicles that can fly without a pilot.
One of the air taxi companies, Kitty Hawk, is run by Mr. Thrun, the Stanford University computer science professor who founded Google’s self-driving car project. He now says that autonomy will be far more powerful in the air than on the ground, and that it will enter our daily lives much sooner. “You can fly in a straight line and you don’t have the massive weight or the stop-and-go of a car” on the ground, he said.
The rise of the flying car mirrors that of self-driving vehicles in ways both good and bad, from the enormous ambition to the multi-billion-dollar investments to the cutthroat corporate competition, including a high-profile lawsuit alleging intellectual property theft. It also recreates the enormous hype.
It is a risky comparison. Google and other self-driving companies did not deliver on the grand promise that robo-taxis would be zipping around