The Edge

Google's Larry Page has backed two flying-car start-ups — here's a look inside one of them, Opener

This Larry Page-backed 'flying car' will cost the same as an SUV and will hit the market next year
Key Points
  • Larry Page is backing Silicon Valley start-up Opener, which has joined the growing number of companies attempting to bring "flying cars" to the masses.
  • Opener's vehicle, called BlackFly, is a single-passenger electric aircraft capable of operating autonomously.
  • While BlackFly can't actually drive on roads, operators don't need a pilot's license to fly one.

Inside a cluster of unmarked buildings in Palo Alto, a small team backed by Google co-founder Larry Page is building a vehicle that they believe will revolutionize personal transportation.

It's a single-passenger aerial craft that doesn't require a pilot's license to fly and could eventually cost about the same as an SUV.

Opener is one of a growing number of companies taking on the challenge of "flying cars." Or, more accurately, vertical take-off and landing vehicles, since most function more like drones or helicopters than road-worthy automobiles also capable of flight.

The company emerged from secrecy in July and joins the ranks of Uber, Joby, Airbus, Boeing and KittyHawk — another flying-car start-up that has received millions from Page.

Opener invited CNBC inside its headquarters to chat with Alan Eustace, a former Google exec who is the company's technical advisor, to learn how it's tackling its aerial ambitions.

Alan Eustace at Opener's Silicon Valley headquarters. 

Beyond roads

Recent advances in battery density, propulsion systems and sense-and-avoid technology are driving the current investment frenzy into flying cars. The overarching idea is that electric VTOLs will be smaller, quieter, safer, easier to fly and cheaper than traditional helicopters or private planes.

Opener's particular vision of the future hinges on the idea that these vehicles will ultimately be cheap enough for regular families to afford.

"It could solve a huge transportation crisis," Eustace said. He imagines a world where people use these vehicles to zoom from Palo Alto to San Francisco in 11 minutes, a journey that currently takes 90 minutes or more during rush hour.

The Opener team after a test flight. 

Opener's BlackFly can travel for 40 miles at 72 miles per hour in Canada, where it was originally headquartered and still conducts test flights, or for 25 miles at 62 miles per hour in the United States. The discrepancy comes down to how the vehicle is classified in each country and the resulting regulations. Ultimately, Eustace says that regulation will be the biggest challenge to getting these vehicles out into the world.

The first BlackFly crafts will start selling next year, but current rules would restrict them to rural areas. They're classified as ultra-light aircraft in the United States, so they don't require a license to fly. They can operate only over uncongested terrain.

Before any VTOL can actually take to the skies in a real way, federal and local regulations and infrastructure will need to adapt to this new transportation category. Analysts and experts say this will take at least five years.

"I think they have an interesting and fun concept, but I do not see this design doing any real personal transport anytime within the next five years," said Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University, who has researched personal air transport for NASA.

BlackFly has one advantage: the deep-pockets of a tech billionaire to buoy it. While Eustace declined to share details of Page's investment, Opener describes itself as a well-funded private company without need for new investors "for the foreseeable future."

The company was founded by Canadian engineer Marcus Leng, who made his own fortune when he sold a manufacturing company in 1996. Leng became fascinated by the idea of personal aviation and "flew" his first proof-of-concept eVTOL aircraft in 2011 in his front yard (it lifted about 3 feet off the ground). From there, he decided to turn his hobby into a business, with his progressive iterations eventually attracting the attention of Page.

Marcus Leng's first flight on October 5, 2011
Courtesy of Opener 

Eustace remembers when Page came into his office about five years ago "bubbling over" about how impressed he was with Leng's technology. Eustace, a pilot who holds the world record for the highest-altitude free-fall jump from space, knew that he wanted to be a part of those efforts to transform transportation.

The company now has about 25 employees, many of whom were hired fresh out of school. Frank Perkins, a mechanical engineer, says he discovered the company through a campus job website in 2016. At the time, Opener was so secretive that he signed his employment contract before even knowing what exactly he'd be working on.

"When I actually did find out what they were doing, my mind was blown," he said. "But I had also just signed a nondisclosure agreement, so I had to be quiet about this amazingly cool job for months and months and months."

The latest model of BlackFly will actually be made to fit a person of Perkins' dimensions: up to 6-feet-6 and 250 pounds.

CNBC's Jillian D'Onfro talks to Opener engineer Frank Perkins in front of the company's nondescript headquarters. 

Although Perkins hasn't actually flown one of the vehicles yet, seven other people have, ranging from age 25 to 75, and including both pilots and nonpilots.

Eleanor Li, an Opener mechanical engineer, says that even though she had no previous piloting experience, she felt totally safe during her flight.

The vehicle can be operated via a simple joystick and has a "go-home" button that will tell it to return to where it started and land on its own. It also has redundant motors and batteries so it can stay in the air if one fails. For an absolute worst-case scenario, it comes with a ballistic parachute.

"It's like nothing I've ever felt before," Li says, "The acceleration, ... it's exhilarating."

Eustace hasn't tested the vehicle himself, but he's looking forward to his chance. Although he's cautious about making predictions for when BlackFly could ever gain mainstream adoption, he thinks the concept is inevitable instead of impossible.

"The regulatory system has to catch up with the capabilities that are actually in the vehicle right now," he said. "It's a magical future."