Through his company, Kitty Hawk, Sebastian Thrun is working to make personal flying vehicles a reality. Shown above: Flyer, one of vehicles being developed by the company. (Image source: Kitty Hawk)

What do you get the industry that is disrupting everything? Ask serial entrepreneur and inventor Sebastian Thrun and the answer you’d get is, “more disruption.”

As the CEO of Kitty Hawk, a company with the bold vision of bringing flying cars to consumers, Thrun is imaging a future where autonomous cars have been replaced by personal autonomous planes. “I believe the flying car revolution will disrupt self driving cars,” he told an audience during his keynote at the 2019 Drive World Conference & Expo. “I believe we will see flying cars at scale before self-driving cars.”

“Don’t Trust the Experts”

Thrun speaks to an audience at Drive World 2019. (Image source: Drive World Conference & Expo)

While he admitted his own predictions may sound fantastical, Thrun has been involved with autonomous vehicles for over a decade. He headed up the team that won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge – a 132-mile, off-road autonomous vehicle race. While the race itself is more noted today for its mishaps than any particular innovation, winning the competition put Thrun on the path that has today led him to imagine a future most people would associate with The Jetsons or Back to the Future: Part 2.

Following his success at the DARPA competition, Thrun was invited to Google to lead the company’s then fledgling autonomous car program (he founded Google X). “I was the go-to person [at Google] for self-driving cars,” Thrun said.

Google’s ambition was to create a self-driving car that could navigate even the most difficult roads. The company’s founders, Larry Page and Sergy Brin, even personally selected the most difficult routes in Northern California and tasked Thrun and his team with creating a self-driving car that could handle them.

But according to Thrun, being Google’s in-house expert taught him two major lessons: “Don’t trust incumbents” and “don’t trust the experts.”

“Larry [Page] came to me and said, ‘you’re the world expert. Can you start a team?’ And I said it can’t be done,” Thrun recalled regarding Google’s ask for its autonomous cars. When Page asked for a purely technical reason why it wasn’t possible however, “I couldn’t say all the technical reasons. I had to tell him I know it can’t be done, but there is no technical reason.”

The experience brought Thrun to a realization, “experts know the past, not the future.” He found himself presenting the same reasoning to Google that the traditional automakers had told him about autonomous cars. “We talked to automotive companies, but they didn’t believe it,” he said. “The incumbents are the least interested in disruption.”

If you need any evidence of how reluctant traditional automakers were toward true disruption at the time, Thrun pointed to a 2011 ad campaign for the Dodge Challenger in which the vehicle was touted as, “the leader of the human resistance” against AI-driven cars.

This 2011 Dodge Challenger ad took a jab at the idea of autonomous vehicles. 

“We Are Not the Gatekeepers”

Today, thanks to advances such as deep learning and advanced sensor technologies, autonomous cars are doing things that engineers only a decade ago weren’t sure would be possible. Most major automakers are developing self-driving cars, an entire startup ecosystem has risen up around autonomous vehicles, and autonomous trucks are even being tested on public roads.

And to disrupters that means it’s time to move on to the next thing. For Thrun that’s developing electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles at Kitty Hawk (Google’s Larry Page is a financial backer of the company). Though the idea of flying cars soaring over our heads every day might feel like science fiction, Thrun firmly believes the advanced in autonomous cars lend themselves directly to the development of creating autonomous flying machines.

He argued that whereas as roads are two-dimensional spaces with a limited capacity, the sky is three-dimensional and offers many more benefits in terms of travel efficiency and capacity. By Thrun’s own estimation, the same stretch of road that can hold a few dozen cars, would be able to hold upwards of a million flying vehicles of the same size. Adding full autonomy to these vehicles, Thrun said, would also alleviate issues around navigation. He told the Drive World audience the key would be in automating the sort of systems used today in air traffic control.

Kitty Hawk has yet to release a commercial product to the public, but has been actively testing its vehicles with human pilots. It recently reported that one of its vehicles, Flyer, has already been flown over 25,000 times.

Earlier this year Kitty Hawk entered to a strategic partnership with Boeing to further develop , Cora, its two-seat flying vehicle. Kitty Hawk would like Cora to someday function as an autonomous flying taxi that consumers can summon with a simple app similar to Uber or Lyft.

Getting to that vision, Thrun admitted, will be no small feat. But it’s one he certainly believes is reachable as long as technology, regulation, and society come together to make it happen. “Innovation is a matter of society.” he said. “As much as we in Silicon Valley like to believe we are the pinnacle for what’s possible, we are not the gatekeepers. We are just technologists…It’s not just the technologists and engineers that change the world. It’s all of society that makes an innovation successful.”

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at  Design News covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.

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