Flying Car Leaders Talk Public Perception at a Secret Summit

To reach the best likelihood for success, this argument goes, air taxis should benefit as many, and annoy as few, people as possible. Missteps here can bring down the wrath of publicly elected officials. Consider the fact that New York City is weighing legislation to ban non-emergency helicopter use, in an effort to address noise and safety concerns.

“It’s going to require communities and regulatory bodies and governments to endorse it,” Nikhil Goel, Uber’s aviation lead, said at the summit. “You have to have a critical mass of people clamoring for the technology and the way it’s going to transform their lives.”

This talk of reaching common ground dwellers struck an interesting note at a conference to which only 200 or so people were invited (most eVTOL events draw 10 times that). The crowd included plenty of celebrities. The summit’s inaugural UP Award went to Martine Rothblatt: The Sirius Satellite Radio founder is backing eVTOL startup Beta Technologies in the hope that its funky flyer will help her new company, United Therapeutics, deliver its man-made organs.

The event’s host was Ross Perot, Jr., who took the opportunity to talk up Alliance, Texas, a planned development he created north of Dallas that includes the nation’s first airport that’s entirely without conventional passenger service. It instead provides business aviation and cargo service for companies with large facilities in town, including Amazon, Craftsman, FedEx, and Facebook. Perot pitched is as a testing ground for new aircraft and a source of early customers for commercial eVTOL services. That could mean moving personnel and supplies or, as would be the case with BNSF Railway, to inspect and maintain sprawling infrastructure. (Uber is also targeting Dallas as an early test site for an air taxi pilot.)

The conference featured a motivational talk by former President George W. Bush. Former Tesla CTO JB Straubel talked about the challenge of bringing new technology into a wider public conversation. And there was plenty of fresh tech to see: Cuberg’s Richard Wang discussed his company’s 70 percent improvement in lithium-ion battery capacity, Near Earth Autonomy talked up autonomous control advances, Skyports argued that well-designed passenger terminals can generate a sense of both excitement and familiarity in the public, and more.

On the conference’s unofficial theme—how to bring the public on board—the most impressive speaker may have been Ken Dial, whose University of Montana Flight Laboratory studies bird flight in order to improve human aviation. He wanted to hit on the wonder of flight, a sentiment easily lost in business-focused conversations, but that could inspire a wary public to take a flight. So he talked about the little understood capability of certain predatory birds to keep their heads perfectly stabilized while homing in on prey, even as their bodies and wings gyrate. He explained the humminbird’s astonishing speed and maneuvering capability while dodging obstacles or attacks, and the bar-tailed godwit’s ability to fly nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand. “If you’re not impressed by that, I don’t even like you,” Dial said. But really, it doesn’t matter what impressed the conference-goers. Their job will be to impress the public—and get them to like the idea of a new way of moving through the sky.

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