By Paul Lienert
(Reuters) – The concept of a flying car is not new – inventors have been trying to add wings to wheeled motor vehicles for decades, with only limited success.
Jim Dukhovny, founder of Alef Aeronautics, hopes to change that equation. His California-based firm has come up with a novel approach to moving terrestrial vehicles into the skies and has attracted at least one prominent venture capitalist.
Alef’s Model A, which is just emerging from a seven-year gestation period, looks less like the flying cars in old movies and more like Bruce Willis’ flying taxi in the 1997 film “The Fifth Element.”
The unusual appearance – which features a body that flips on its side to become the wing after lift-off – is just one aspect that attracted Tim Draper, an early investor in Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc and SpaceX whose Draper Associates Fund V has backed Alef with $3 million in seed money.
After Draper had made a modest initial investment, ‘I put more (money in) when I saw that they had created a small drone prototype that did exactly what they told me it would do,’ he said in an email. ‘The design is extraordinary. The sides of the car become the wings when the plane goes horizontal.’
Based in Santa Clara in the heart of Silicon Valley, Alef has designed the Model A – a swoopy yet relatively conventional-looking electric car – with the ability to take off and land vertically. And of course, to fly.
Dukhovny, who is Alef’s CEO, has never built a car until now. He is a computer scientist, software designer, science-fiction buff and serial entrepreneur who once ran an online gaming site called Intellectual Casino.
In an interview, he said the hand-built Model A is designed to sell for $300,000, with production and initial deliveries slated in 2025. That price tag, by the way, is the same starting price planned for the Cadillac brand’s electric-vehicle flagship, the Celestiq, which should start arriving for customers in early 2024, according to Cadillac parent General Motors Co.
One feature that sets the Model A apart from earlier versions of flying cars is how it flies. Once it lifts off the ground, the cockpit swivels and the carbon-fiber body turns over on its side, then moves forward, driven by an array of propellers. Most other recent attempts by competitors resemble giant drones – and are not capable of wheeled travel on the ground.
‘The whole car is the wing,’ said Dukhovny.
Alef estimates a driving range of 200 miles (322 km) and a flight range of 100 miles.
Dukhovny has an even bigger trick up his sleeve for 2030: A proposed Model Z sedan, with a flight range of 200 miles and a driving range of 400 miles – and a projected price tag of $35,000.
‘This is not more complicated than a Toyota Corolla,’ he said. ‘Our goal is to make sure it has the same price point.’
(Reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit; Editing by Matthew Lewis)