Google's Larry Page is funding two rival "flying car" startups

Google co-founder Larry Page is clandestinely funding not one but two "flying car" startups, looking to take the idea of potentially autonomous travel to the skies. While Google's own Google X division continues to work on its self-driving cars – with long-standing speculation that the goal, at least initially, is to establish an Uber-style on-request transportation service with no human driver – a side-project funded by Page's own vast personal fortune could go one step further.

In fact, Bloomberg Businessweek reports after talks with multiple people familiar with at lease part of Page's plans, the executive funded first one then a second company looking at the feasibility of car-scale flying craft.

First came Zee.Areo, which made headlines back in 2013 after a scale model of what looked to be a flying car-style design was spotted in testing. Vaguely insectile, with a slim cabin space flanked by two rows of four rotors, overarching wing struts, and catfish-style whiskers, the craft was being developed so close to Google X's facilities in Mountain View that speculation of Google involvement was almost instantaneous.

Not so, a spokesperson countered, insisting that Zee.Aero was "not affiliated with" Google.

Turns out, this new report today says, that was accurate but at the same time a little misleading. In fact, it was apparently a passion project of Page's own, separate from his work at Google.

Zee.Aero had been set up in a nearby garage, eventually coming to employ around 150 people and expanding to Hollister Municipal Airport where test flights have been spotted taking place.

The team may have a working prototype, but it doesn't apparently look much like those original spy shots. Zee.Aero has supposedly switched to "a narrow body, a bulbous cockpit with room for one person upfront, and a wing at the back" Bloomberg Businessweek reports, driven by two propellors at the back, but with different variations on those prototypes as the company tests multiple approaches.

Any sense of urgency in that testing comes in no small part from Page's second investment, a rival flying car startup called Kitty Hawk which is firewalled from Zee.Aero though contains former engineers from the company, as well as previous Google self-driving car expert Emerick Oshiro.

Details of the Kitty Hawk flying car are scant, though it's been described by some as a large quadcopter-style drone big enough for human occupants.

Intriguingly, though the practicalities of personal flight are still complex – addressed, in part, by looking to electric motors for propulsion – it could be the segment where autonomy debuts first. Despite requiring movement in three dimensions, the challenges of a self-flying AI are apparently more straightforward than for a car, with experts suggesting that plane-pods that pilot themselves are likely to arrive before cars that are fully autonomous do.

That is, assuming the various legal and regulatory questions and answered, and the cash keeps flowing to keep the pet projects running.

SOURCE Bloomberg Businessweek