When it comes to flying cars, Jeff Chimenti wants to give Elon Musk a run for his money — even though Musk, famously, has a lot of that.
But Chimenti is confident that his startup, Aviator Cycles, might be one of the first to get a vehicle off the ground and up into consumer markets. That's because he's not focusing on cars at all — the prototype, unveiled at a recent promotional event in the Woodlands, is a critical propulsion system for what Chimenti calls a personal air vehicle, or PAV.
The PAVs that Aviator Cycles plans to make are more like motorcycles or four-wheelers and intended for recreational use — but the high-tech system could change how other designers make flying vehicles.
"All of this is really happening," says Chimenti, a Houston-based investor and chief visionary officer and co-founder for the startup. "We're pushing it forward."
And, hopefully, upward. Aviator Cycles's first PAV doesn't fly yet, but smaller models have, and Chimenti expects to see a successful launch within one year. The company is making PAVs because there's a lot of red tape around making cars — traffic systems will need to be redrafted.
So for now, the unique propulsion system, which has come a long way since co-founder Jesse Marcel made his first patent on it before the company was even made, is being fastened to the Aerorunner GSX, a sports vehicle that will flutter from about four feet off the ground for safety.
Aviator Cycles plans to start taking reservations for these in the next six months. But Marcel says that his proprietary propulsion system will eventually make its way to other companies and vehicles; Audi, Porsche and Boeing, for example, have announced flying car projects in recent years.
All this innovation is part of a push toward alternative transportation, but it feels like a resurgent space race — just a little lower this time. Aviator Cycles, based in Spokane, Washington, isn't the only manufacturer. In 2018, California-based Hoversurf announced a hoverbike with a set of helicopter blades. It was supposed to ship out earlier this year for $150,000. Across the world — in Britain and Israel, for example — companies are developing bikes to compete in a brand-new flying vehicle market.
"Everybody that designs is great, but they're ultimately going to have to use our propulsion system," says Chimenti.
A new kind of 4x4 might fly, literally, in the Pacific Northwest, where the culture is all hiking and being outside. Texans, though, tend to have a better relationship with their air-conditioners than the great outdoors. Houston, especially, is mostly the urban sprawl of twisting highways — the same unregulatable stretch of concrete that Chimenti has avoided making vehicles for.
But Chimenti is optimistic about the potential for Space City. Last October, the Houston City Council gave $18.8 million to develop the Houston Spaceport, a kind of "mission control" for the future of commercial alternative transportation. Near Ellington Airport, the site has launch pads and lab space — but, maybe most excitingly for people like Chimenti, it has a tech incubator for developers to design and test their equipment.
Houston, then, has a historical stake in how we explore the space above our heads — and what's left for the regular person to explore is closer, below the stratosphere. If Houston has already been instrumental in getting all the way up there, then some light hovering will be nothing. When it comes to flying motocross, Chimenti says, Houston won't have a problem.