Millions of Passengers for $3 a Mile: Wisk's Vision for Autonomous Aviation
Its Gen 6 aircraft is a four-person, autonomous air taxi. But Wisk needs to get a lot of people on board to make this work.
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If Wisk has its way, there will be thousands of air taxis flying through our cities in just over a decade, transporting as many as 300 million passengers on short trips for just $3 per passenger mile.
To get there, the Silicon Valley-based autonomous-aviation company has unveiled the first prototype of its new production model aircraft, the Gen 6. The electric vertical takeoff and landing, or EVTOL, air taxi is designed to transport four passengers, without a pilot, taking short hops across congested cities.
Wisk wants 5,000 of these aircraft in its fleet by 2035, taking off from "vertiports" across the city and transporting 300 million passengers.
"The problem we're trying to solve is supercongested cities like LA, New York, London, Mumbai, Sao Paulo," said Wisk CEO Gary Gysin. "You're stuck in a car for an hour-and-a-half or two hours, you might have 20 to 40 miles to go, and you have no idea when you're going to get to the other end."
It's an ambitious goal. Wisk won't just need to convince regulators (the Gen 6 still needs to be fully certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration) and convince passengers to fly inside its autonomous aircraft. It'll also need community buy-in -- to build or convert infrastructure for vertiports, to adjust to the noise of a new kind of high-volume vehicle fleet and to change the way cities are designed, moving last-mile transport from the roads to the skies.
But Wisk says it's the company to do it, and that autonomy is the only way.
Wisk is imagining future rides in its Gen 6 as an Uber-like experience. You call a flight, throw your bags in the frunk and hop in for takeoff. But unlike Uber, you won't need to make small talk with your driver or give a star rating when you're done. The flight -- from takeoff through cruise and to landing -- is all unpiloted.
"What most people don't know is 93% of pilot controls today are already automated," said Gysin. "There's very little that a pilot actually does. The only thing is it's this accepted thing of somebody sitting up front."
Under Wisk's model, the aircraft are self-flying but there's still a "human in the loop" in the form of a Multi Vehicle Supervisor, a human controller based on the ground who watches over up to 10 aircraft at once.
"They're more like air traffic controllers," Gysin said. "They're just watching the planes, they're seeing if there are any emergencies or anything where they have to intervene. But for the most part, they won't. They'll just watch."
For Wisk's head of automation, Jon Lovegren, the shift from pilot in the aircraft to supervisor on the ground isn't that much of a change from today.
"You could think about it as that pilot has stepped out of the aircraft and offloaded those repetitive tasks that weren't really the best use of their capabilities," said Lovegren.
Safety and scale
Full automation doesn't just mean taking off, steering and keeping the plane stable. According to Gysin, computers have been doing those jobs for decades. With Gen 6, the company also had to create an autonomy system capable of more high-level tasks like anticipating hazards and adjusting a flight path around other aircraft -- things a pilot would normally handle. But although there's a computer in the pilot's seat, so to speak, the company says its automation is still based on strict logic.
"It's not just thinking arbitrarily by itself and deciding it wants to land at a different place today versus yesterday -- it's all very procedural and rule based," said Lovegren. "So no matter what happens, even if we lose our link to the ground, the aircraft is able to maintain safe flight and landing."
For Wisk, autonomation is clearly linked with safety. According to Gysin, more than 80% of aviation accidents are the result of human error. By removing the pilot, Wisk says, its model "will be the safest form of aviation, full stop." Wisk also says it's building its aircraft to meet a standard called "10 to the minus 9" -- or a one-in-one-billion chance of having an accident.
But automation isn't just about safety. Wisk says it's also about being cost effective. When you don't need a highly trained pilot for each aircraft carrying just four passengers, you remove a significant amount of cost from the system, and you can scale quicker.
"We don't believe this industry scales until you can get a price point that is like Uber X pricing, so anybody can afford to do this as an everyday mode of transportation," said Gysin.
Gysin concedes that competitors may get their aircraft into the skies first because they're opting to bring their EVTOLs to market as piloted aircraft first before shifting to the fully autonomous model.
"If you talk to anybody else that's in this space, they'll say, 'Oh, absolutely, we're going to start with piloted and then we're going to go to self flying.' Cool. But we're going to be three to five years ahead of everybody else, because we're going straight there."
Still, getting 5,000 aircraft into the skies by 2035 is an ambitious production goal. Though the company has unveiled its first Gen 6, that model isn't capable of flying yet. Wisk still needs to build the aircraft, and that won't be cheap.
To get there, it says it'll be relying on the backing (and deep pockets) of its parent company, Boeing. But while having well-known parents is good when it comes to finances, they also bring baggage.
Wisk was created in 2019 as a joint venture between Boeing and Silicon Valley aviation company Kittyhawk. The latter began life as a start-up in 2010, backed by Google co-founder Larry Page. Under the joint venture, Wisk inherited Kittyhawk's intellectual property and patents, built up over five generations of aircraft, including the fifth-gen Cora aircraft. But it has also inherited questions about the reality of bringing a product to market.
In September 2022, just days before Wisk unveiled the Gen 6, parent company Kittyhawk announced it had "made the decision to wind down" its business.
"We're still working on the details of what's next," the company said in a tweet.
Wasn't it a bad look that a company trying to build the future of autonomous aviation just had its parent company admit defeat?
Gysin insists Kittyhawk's move doesn't have any impact on Wisk.
"Kitty Hawk contributed to the joint venture, and then Boeing has taken it from there," he said. "They're still a minority shareholder in the company, that hasn't changed, the legal structure still exists. Operationally, they were building some different aircraft that had nothing to do with what we're doing."
Still, the closure of an autonomous-aviation brand (and one so close to home) points to the upheaval and consolidation that are central to this space. In fact, there's so much movement in autonomous aerial mobility, that one consulting company has created a "Reality Index" ranking how likely it is that each company in the industry will get something off the ground. Literally. As of the August 2022 listing, Wisk was ranked 6th.
And that's the inherent conflict at the heart of autonomous aviation. There are plenty of companies promising the future, but they all rank differently when it comes to reality.
It's easy to get your design team to create 3D cityscapes full of EVTOLs and vertiports. It's even (comparatively) easy to unveil a new, nonflying aircraft to show off the promise of your next-gen ambitions. But building 5,000 of them, getting them certified and getting community buy-in, all before you've flown your first passenger? That's a lot of people to get onboard for a four-person vehicle.
Gysin is unworried. He says the company has a "show don't tell" mantra, and that despite the competitive landscape, Wisk is well placed to make the dream a reality.
"Our personal belief is there are going to be very few survivors of this whole journey," he says of all the companies in autonomous aviation. "From that perspective, I could care less about the competition, right? The world is a huge place. There are lots of routes, there are lots of problems to solve. If we execute, we're going to do fine."
To check out our behind-the-scenes look at the Gen 6, see the video in this story. This report is part of CNET's What the Future series, your destination for futurism.