The Candian inventor Mr. Leng believes that all these happenings in the Flying Cars world is a step toward the starry future envisioned by ''The Jetsons.'' the classic cartoon in which flying cars are commonplace.

'' I have always had a dream that we could have unfettered three-dimensional freedom like a bird does    - that we can take off and just fly around,'' he said.

The race is on to put students-commuters in flying cars : 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 Candian 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 the 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 along crowded streets. 

''Our dream is to free the world from traffic,'' said Sebastian Thrun, another engineer at the heart of the movement.

That dream, most experts agree, is a long way from reality. But the idea is gathering steam. Dozens of companies are 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 car for the rich - that could start selling this year. Others are building larger vehicles that 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 taxis companies, Kitty Hawk, is run by Mr. Thrun, the Stanford University computer science professor who founded Google's self-driving car project. He says that autonomy will be far more powerful in the air than then 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 good and bad : the enormous ambition, the multi-billion dollar investment and 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 ground promise that robo taxis would be zipping around cities by now, dramatically reshaping the economy.

But that has not stopped inventors and transportation companies from dumping billions of dollars more into flying cars. It has not stopped cities from striking deals they believe will create networks of air taxis. And it has not stopped technologists from forging full steam ahead with plans to turn sci-fi into reality.

Wisk Aero, a company that spun out of Kitty Hawk in 2019 with backing from Mr. Page and Boeing, sees the future in much the same way. It is already testing a two-seat vehicle, and is building a larger autonomous air taxi that may have more seats.

Many believe this is how flying cars will ultimately operate : as a taxi, without a pilot. In the long run, they argue, finding and paying pilots would be far too expensive.

This arrangement is technically possible today. Kitty Hawk and Wisk are already testing autonomous flight. But once again, persuading regulators to sign off on this idea is far from simple.

The federal Aviation Administration has never approved electric aircraft, much less taxis that fly themselves. Companies say they are discussing new methods of certification with regulators, but it is unclear how quickly this will progress.

''It is going to take longer than people think,'' said Han Kroo, a Stanford professor who has also worked closely with Mr. Page and previously served as chief executive of Kitty Hawk.

''There is a lot to be done before regulators accept these vehicles as safe - and before people accept them as safe.''

The World Students Society thanks authors Cade Metz and Erin Griffith.


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