It sounds mad today – but the flying taxi could revolutionise our lives

Kitty Hawk Cora flying taxi
The Kitty Hawk Cora: a true game-changer

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Oh, my goodness me what a flaky mind I have.

I began yesterday planning to write this Money Morning about the latest house price data – 15% falls in certain parts of London.

Then my editor, John, pointed out that you, dear reader, are long overdue a piece from me on battery metals – lithium, cobalt, nickel et al.

Then we decided that gold miners need some thought.

By the end of the conversation we agreed that I would discuss my old favourite – the ratio between gold and UK house prices.

So here’s today’s Money Morning. It’s on, yup, flying taxis…

Time for some (literal) blue-sky thinking

I couldn’t help it. As soon as I read this story, I got so excited I had to write about it. The implications are huge.

The story emerged yesterday that Google co-founder, Larry Page, has been quietly testing flying taxis in the south of New Zealand. He’s spent $100m on the project since 2010.

The start-up, known as Kitty Hawk, now has a prototype vehicle, the Cora, which appears to have reached the stage where it’s good enough to tell the world about.

Looking rather like some bloated robot wasp, these all-electric transporters carry two passengers, are self-driving and can travel at over 100mph. The current travel range is a little over 60 miles.

They take off and land vertically, like a helicopter – though they are much quieter. The YouTube video of the taxi in action shows just how quiet they are.

If that’s not enough, being electric vehicles, they are also emissions free.

Already Kitty Hawk is working on further certification so it can launch a commercial air taxi service. They’ve chosen New Zealand because of its “forward-thinking regulatory ecosystem”, for its “devotion to clean energy” and for its “high aviation standards”.

Of course, we are still many years away from widespread adoption. There are a million hurdles to overcome.

At first, these taxis will be prohibitively expensive for most people, but costs will come down as the technology improves. There are going to be issues persuading people that they are safe to travel in: the idea of self-driving cars puts the heebie-jeebies up many people, how will they feel about self-flying taxis? Aversion will increase as accidents occur – and they will.

There will be a million safety regulations to get through, which most civil aviation authorities will, one hopes, be rigorous about (they are going to have a lot of work on their hands).

There will be resistance from environmental groups. Even though these vehicles are electric, and (so it will be argued) emit no emissions that pollute the air, there are going to be other issues. Danger to bird life is one that immediately springs to mind.

There will also be resistance from operators who are likely to be disrupted by this new technology; we don’t even know who these are yet.

All these and more means many years before these become an everyday feature of UK living. But none change this amazing breakthrough: self-flying taxis are now a reality. They can’t now be uninvented.

Self-driving cars are huge – but self-flying taxis would change everything

The long-term implications are enormous. A new transport system such as this is going to have a huge impact on the way we live – and where we live. Just how big remains to be seen, but part of me thinks that self-flying taxis will have an even greater impact than self-driving cars (although we are into Top Trump territory here: both are huge).

It will eventually become possible to travel long distances directly. No having to go to the airport or station first to catch a plain, train or helicopter. No finding the best route in the car. No motorways, no queues of traffic, no traffic lights. You will be able to travel directly from A to B in a straight line.

Much longer commutes will become possible. Will cities become more or less congested as a result? Many of us will no longer need to live near work or a station. The pressure to own well-located, urban and suburban property (and the associated upward price pressure on that property) may alter, as people move further and further away.

Will our roads become less congested too? What happens to cars in this sci-fi future? (We’ll still use them, I expect.)

Value is going to be created where it didn’t previously exist. The unused space that is a roof in a city centre might now become a parking space or a landing port. I can imagine whole new businesses emerging where people have their roofs converted and reinforced, and then rent them out, like AirBnB.

What are the implications for cross-border travel in these vehicles? How will nations police this? What about illegal trafficking – of goods and people? What type of money will these taxis accept payment in? (You can bet your bottom dollar it will be some sort of crypto-currency, which will make them extremely difficult to tax and regulate.)

As widespread adoption grows, this will give another huge boost to the battery metals associated with these new developments – cobalt, vanadium, silver, nickel, zinc – even lead. As if they didn’t have enough investment already, companies operating in battery tech are going to find all sorts of new demands for improved tech, and find new investment as a result.

I’m not sure there’s anything you as an investor need to be doing tomorrow in reaction to this, or even next week.

But I can’t help thinking this is one of those landmark moments where something has changed (although it’s taken ten years of investment to get to this point) – a long-term secular shift.

There are many questions to think about. Chief among them for me is the effect this has on cities. Since the Industrial Revolution, people have been moving from rural to urban areas, and wealth has been concentrated into certain city centres. Will that remain the case? Or will this enable people and wealth to disperse in the opposite direction? Lots to think about.

In the meantime, here’s the video of the taxi in action. It’s only had 44,000 views. Clearly the world is not as excited about this as I am. But it will be.

  • AAJ

    All these electric planes and electric helicopters just seem to be so niche. They all seem to miss the opportunity that is a gridlocked city. Can you have a small, upright pod that takes you from the airport/mainline station to work/home? Something that replaces a packed underground so I don’t have to be squashed up against someone coughing or sneezing …

    • Peter Edwards

      Why do you have to go to work in the first place?

      It seems to me that lots of jobs that are done in city centres could be done full or part-time at home.

      • AAJ

        Now there is a question that could be an article in itself. The answer is 2fold. a) people like to meet people face to face and b) employers don’t trust their employees

        I work in IT for an international company, my team is spread over 6 time zones … and we are all required to be in an office 😉

  • DiverPhil

    Will we see the emergence of the neighbourhood micro drone ports based in affluent areas allowing travel to Heathrow, Gatwick and City Airport?

  • OldCodger

    There are other flying “taxis” being built, some more compact, not all going straight to pilot-less as they recognise the regulatory and psychological hurdles to be overcome. The first obvious market will be major densely populated cities, providing point to point on-call high end transport from the top of your office building or a close by point to another office roof/landing zone where your meeting etc is at a speed no gridlocked ground taxi can match.
    The choke point for this tech is the air traffic management system necessary to control it safely in a built up environment. The current systems are not designed for this and could not cope.

  • Jonathan Tedd

    Completely bonkers! Love the aircraft and what it offers, but as mass transit it cant happen. This is because we do no have the capacity to produce the electricity demand (fossil fuel power stations) and secondly we would need to literally rape the earth for the metals needed for making batteries (requiring heavy plant running on diesel).

    One for James Bond or his adversary!