An upward-thinking Israeli startup aims to put a flying car in every garage
Photos: Menachem Kalish
The eight rotors of the small craft begin to spin, and within a few seconds, the vehicle rises vertically and begins to take flight — no runway necessary. As it lifts off the ground, this small flying craft seems to pick up confidence once it hits the air. When it reaches the desired altitude, it accelerates to 150 mph and shoots out toward the destination it’s been programmed to fly.
The prototype video I’m watching is the realization of childhood (and even adult) dreams: imagine, a flying car. But videos can play tricks. Because as much as we’ve already seen breakneck-speed advances in areas such as medicine and computer science, there is something inexorably linked to the world of the future with the idea of flying cars. Yet here I am, in the production complex of the AIR start-up, and the flying contraption is there, right in the center of the floor. Is this really something I could just hop into and fly? AIR CEO Rani Plaut seems to understand my dream — because he has it too. And if he has his way, that dream is about to take off.
Israel is known internationally as the “Start-Up Nation,” and Rani Plaut likes to include his company under that label.
His nearly camouflaged warehouse in Pardes Hannah, a town not far from the Caesarea shore, looks more like a high-tech plant than a factory for cars or aircraft. As the unwritten manual of 21st-century companies indicates, everything here is organized, transparent and immaculate, and glass seems to be the favorite material for interior partitions. Despite the fact that at the far end, technicians are working on some prototypes, this place definitely doesn’t have the look of a vehicle assembly line or a garage. There are no oil-stained rags, no smell of fuel. And in fact, this isn’t really a production line at all, because the company hasn’t yet begun to build the AIR ONE series for consumers.
Yet that didn’t stop the company from unveiling AIR ONE, the first easy-to-operate all-electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) craft, which they hope to sell to consumers on the open market — primarily in the US — by the end of next year.
AIR has been working with the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) for two years and expects to obtain certification by the end of 2023 for their craft, a two-seater, 970 kg (two-ton) eVTOL, which will have a flight range of 110 miles (177 km) on the battery charge, and will be able to accelerate to 150 mph.
But Plaut has a different vision. He says the difference with AIR is that it will be sold to consumers who can use its “fly by intent” software to fly themselves without being fully trained pilots.
“We’re not talking about commercial flights,” he tells Mishpacha. “We’re talking about people using it the way they use cars.”
If you’ve ever dreamed about soaring over traffic, it might be possible sooner than you think.
Easier than You Think
Plaut gives me a tour of the facility and escorts me into one of the two seats in the craft. This model is practically finished and it’s only lacking a few aesthetic details. There is another aircraft that has already been completed and is now in the US, where it’s been presented at various auto and aircraft shows. Stepping inside and sitting down in the bucket seat, I feel more like I’m in a state-of-the-art sports car than in a flying contraption, although there are no doors. To get inside, you have to raise the gigantic windshield and, once you’re in and it’s closed, you feel like you’ve been covered by a transparent bubble.
But if this craft is going up in the air, where is the cockpit? Where are the dozens of clocks, buttons, lights and gauges? There is only a screen and a lever between the driver and the passenger, yet Plaut assures me that either of them will be able to command the craft.
At the outset, Plaut is careful to clarify his terms.
“We don’t call it a flying car,” he emphasizes. Perhaps sensing my disappointment, he instantly elaborates. “It’s not like some other prototypes that have made test runs, where the craft converts back to a car and drives off after it lands, as the wings and tail fold up into the chassis. This craft is only for the sky.
“A ‘flying car’ is a bad idea, because you’re talking about a vehicle that’s both a bad car and a bad plane. I prefer to use the term ‘air vehicle,’ although I suppose the public will be the one to end up deciding on the name of the concept.”
The most accurate definition is “electrical take-off and landing” aircraft (eVTOL, pronounced “eeveetol” in tech slang) and, in simpler terms, it’s like a hybrid between a drone and an airplane. The AIR ONE can rise and land in one place on a vertical axis, but has wings like an airplane — a feature unique to AIR’s product as opposed to other eVTOL prototypes. The wings can fold themselves into the body for more accessible parking options, and the craft can take off from or land on any flat surface.
But even in comparison with other flying vehicles, what makes AIR ONE stand out, according to Plaut, is the very idea behind it. This is not an airborne taxi or shuttle with a driver who will ferry clients, as is the plan with most of his competitors, but a craft meant for anyone to fly on their own. When I express my concern that it sounds a bit dangerous, Plaut assures me that my fears are based only on what he calls “mistaken perception.”
“The driver of a car never even thinks about the fact that when he hits the highway, he’s sitting in a box that weighs two tons and is traveling at 65 mph, surrounded by another 50 or 60 vehicles going the same speed, less than six feet away,” he says. “Less than three feet ahead of him is an engine that produces about 6,000 explosions per minute. When you put it like that, it sounds terrifying. However, several factors — including time, regularity, and ease of operation — mean that anyone can drive without having a panic attack. The airplane pilot hasn’t yet gone through that evolution because no one tried until now, but that’s what our vehicle is trying to do: prove that flying is much simpler than one would think, and believe it or not, even easier than driving a car.”
He notices my raised eyebrows. “Look, let’s say you’re driving a car at 70 mph and suddenly, you close your eyes. In how many seconds do you think you’ll be facing death? One and a half seconds. Now let’s say you’re on this aircraft. You’re flying at an altitude of one kilometer. How far are you from a crash? Two minutes, maybe three. Also, your only impact is against the ground, not like in a car, where there’s the multiple impact of all the cars that crashed.
In addition, these aircraft are equipped with sensors that won’t let the driver crash, no matter how hard one tries. The vehicle automatically straightens out. Still, a malfunction could send the craft plummeting to the ground. But even in such an emergency, the craft is outfitted with autonomic systems that allow control even if one of the four electric batteries explodes or if up to four of the eight engines conk out. And if all else fails, there’s the great old-time ally of aircraft: “In an extreme emergency, a parachute self-activates to cushion the fall.”
Still, regardless of ease or safety, piloting one of these aircraft requires a permit from the aeronautical authority of each country.
“The way we’ve developed the aircraft, individuals can be trained with just 15 hours of instruction. It’s very easy to handle,” says Plaut, who clarifies that 60 percent of the 260 pre-sale buyers to date (each one shelling out around $150,000) still do not have a permit to fly.
The company is targeting consumers in the US, and hopes to sell around 15,000 vehicles a year.
“The United States has a lot of open airspace that makes it a suitable first market for the AIR ONE,” Plaut says. “We don’t envision it for highly populated urban areas, because people don’t appreciate big things flying over their heads at low altitudes.”
Tesla of the air As much as I was dying to get behind the — wheel? joystick? — and fly for at least a few minutes, right now it’s still not possible. In the absence of the relevant permits, AIR ONE may only do testing on unmanned vehicles, piloted by remote control.
“We’re doing it to buy time,” Plaut explains. “To be able to put a person in a vehicle like this, we would have to carry out a list of tests and procedures that could take us at least three years. This way, we got the permits right away.”
The AIR ONE craft already has an airworthiness certificate, a permit to operate an aircraft in flight, and over the summer passed a series of hover tests under the supervision of the Civil Aviation Authority.
In addition to Israeli regulators, AIR has also been working with the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to obtain G1 certification, which outlines initial safety and environmental standards for civil commercial operations. According to Plaut, AIR is “on track” with the US certification, a process that should be complete by the end of 2023.
Although we can’t yet fly the craft, we can have the next-best experience: a virtual simulator. Plaut escorts me to a kind of robotic frame, and, before putting on 3D glasses, gives me a brief driving lesson.
When I put on my glasses, I lose touch with my surroundings, and even though I can’t see him, I can hear him fiddling with some buttons. Within a few seconds, the metal structure makes a slight movement, and I’m “sitting” in the virtual cockpit of an aircraft. With a small lever I set the altitude, and before my eyes, the grass and the houses are moving away and I gain a panoramic view of things. I move forward with the lever, and decide to test what Plaut had told me earlier: that the craft has sensors to prevent it from going down. So the first thing I try, obviously, is to crash the aircraft. Surprisingly, the machine won’t let me do it, and every time I point it at the ground, the ship stabilizes itself again. In the end, at the push of a button, the vehicle lands on its own.
As much as I enjoyed the ride, driving the vehicle was so simple that my skepticism was evident. A car, for example, can break down at the side of the road, but an aircraft can’t exactly stop in the middle of the sky and wait for a tow. How can one rely on a simulator to be able to assess the difficulties inherent in flying outdoors?
Plaut, defending his creation, assures me that piloting the vehicle will be very much like the simulator experience. He admits, though, that the biggest challenge at this point is building confidence and getting consumers to trust the product. I agree. Honestly, I find it hard to believe that the simulator is like the real thing, but for proof, we must wait, according to his estimates, until 2024. Meanwhile, hundreds have already gotten on board.
According to a report issued by Morgan Stanley, the urban aviation market will be valued at a whopping $15 billion by 2040, and the main impact of eVTOLs will be in passenger transport, in military and defense applications, and in transport of packages. Amazon and Google have allocated large sums for innovation in the messaging sector, and firms such as Joby Aviation and Uber are looking into air taxis of the future. But if this new frontier will really be viable, shouldn’t one expect large automobile or aeronautical firms to invest in its development?
“Changes always happen from the periphery, and never from the center,” Plaut says. “The commerce revolution didn’t come from Walmart, but from a certain Jeff Bezos working in his parents’ garage. The electric car revolution didn’t come from Ford, but from Tesla, which didn’t even have any market share. The virtual payment revolution didn’t come from Visa or Bank of America, but from two industrious fellows who created PayPal. I’m not surprised the big players haven’t gotten involved, because it’s only natural for change to come from the outside.”
Plaut doesn’t hide his admiration for Tesla founder Elon Musk, and mentions in passing that he expects AIR ONE to be “the Tesla of air vehicles.” Like the new owner of the social network Twitter, Plaut, a mathematician and physicist, is an entrepreneur who has created several companies.
“I’m 55, so I’ve failed many times, but I’ve also done well,” he says.
In 2016 he sold his stake in BMAX, a leading provider of magnetic pulse (MP) systems, which used his patents (and which was valued at $1 billion) to devote himself fully to AIR.
But as much as Plaut likes to portray himself as an outsider, the truth is that the adventure of AIR, which began six years ago, is run by people who know the system very well. AIR was first conceived in 2017 by Chen Rosen, a veteran Israeli Air Force drone pilot and aviation expert who was later joined by Plaut and Netanel Goldberg, both serial entrepreneurs. Plaut is also the executive chairman of Israeli automotive startup Moodify, and an executive board member at Tactile Mobility, a Haifa-based startup that provides smart cars with the ability to “feel the road.” With AIR, the founders set out to “make the freedom of flight truly accessible to people,” says Plaut.
AIR’s founders know it’s a market filled with competitive innovation, yet believe that while the overall sector is focused on commercially piloted or autonomous air taxis for cities, AIR ONE offers “an alternative for those who want to enjoy the ultimate freedom of flying on their own terms,” according to Plaut. “No one is doing that.”
Still, Plaut admits that although they’ve filed patents, their innovations can easily be copied, and both US and Chinese firms can have easy access to the technology they propose, if they don’t already have it. So how does a small firm from a small country think it can revolutionize international transport?
“Well, the first thing you have to know that there are two types of people: those who do and those who do not. Those who do, just do,” he says. “It can be harder than you think for large companies to do what we do, because here, we’re all in it together. We’re like a group of friends in a garage. We tested, we made mistakes, we modified. We’re a group of people who started experimenting and were willing to change ideas in mid-course. On the other hand, if a firm like Boeing, for example, wants to do something like that, they’ll be using the same tried-and-true standards they always have been.”
Although the company wants to target the end consumer, AIR’s prototype has not gone unnoticed by the Israeli government. Plaut confirmed that Israeli defense officials have approached him to ask him to work together, though for the moment at least, it’s not on his horizon.
“My experience as an entrepreneur has taught me that when you’re creating a new product, you have to be very precise in what you’re offering. If you lose focus, the project gets diluted.
“We’re making an air vehicle for private use. If the defense establishment then wants to buy 20 units from us and use them for rescues, defense, or other things, that’s fine. Nor are we ruling out that in the future we’ll work together. But for now, those proposals only make us lose our focus.
Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile
Just thinking about a flying car (okay, an “air vehicle”) means a revolution in transportation. The last great frontier in the transportation revolution has been the idea of driverless cars, which hasn’t yet panned out, although Mobileye and its affiliates are still going strong, and billions of dollars have already been invested.
“I’ve been working in the transportation industry for 35 years, and I think you have to separate the cases,” Plaut explains. “First, don’t believe that the trillions earmarked for driverless cars simply went down the drain. Much of the technology we have in cars today, such as radar and sensor systems, are a product of that development.
“And there’s another difference. People for the most part, at least at this point in time, don’t want driverless cars. They want to retain control of the road. Here, though, it’s different, because consumers are excited about the idea of getting into their own aircraft.”
During this summer’s Detroit Auto Show, for example, eVTOLs — and specifically Plaut’s AIR ONE — were the most exciting new players in the market. Still, no one expects these aircraft to replace the car anytime soon.
First of all, in most densely populated areas, eVTOLs are forbidden. Despite claims for the impeccable safety of these crafts, it doesn’t take an extreme stretch of the imagination to think of what could happen if one of these low-flying machines were to suddenly malfunction and lose control.
The second impediment is a financial one: The AIR ONE model currently sells for $150,000 on preorder, but other competitive companies are selling their models for up to $300,000 — which makes it either a company investment or a luxury item for a few.
Still, maybe we’re not so far from the possibility of getting into our own craft, dropping off the children at school and parking near the kollel.
As I head toward the exit, I realize I need to hurry — I still have two trains to catch before I get home — and it’s only 113 kilometers back to Jerusalem, which means if I had an AIR ONE, there would even be battery juice to spare.
Suddenly, having that future a little bit closer doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 936)
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