Flying cars, almost a reality—then the lawyers got involved

Inside the bitter lawsuit between Wisk Aero and Archer Aviation that’s rocking the projected $1 trillion future of urban flight.

Flying cars, almost a reality—then the lawyers got involved
[Illustration: Tavis Coburn]

Don’t call it a flying car.


The vehicle, which looks like a space-age tadpole that’s sprouted spike-tipped wings, can take off and land vertically, meaning that it doesn’t require a runway, and once it’s aloft, it flies like a small airplane. Make the mistake of referring to one of these not-helicopter-not-airplanes as a “flying car” to anyone in the burgeoning market and invariably they’ll squawk: “It sounds too much like science fiction, like something that is never gonna happen.” (They also hate the Jetsons theme song and can recall with surprising accuracy every news program that has used it.)

As you board, arrows guide you across a kind of bridge that weighs you. Infrared sensors detect whether your luggage is hard- or soft-backed, and, more important, whether you have to wait for the next flight because it’s overweight. Every gram matters. The batteries powering this thing to 2,000 feet are electric. You will not be getting an extra ice cube in your drink.

This on-ramp procedure is still on the drawing board—in this case, the walls of Archer Aviation’s Mountain View, California, design studio, where scenes are annotated with dozens of handwritten Post-its. So when I enter the vehicle’s four-passenger cabin, I just hop in right behind the pilot’s seat. I set my phone down on the induction charger and lean back in my ergonomic seat, which feels surprisingly like a recliner for something that isn’t padded and doesn’t actually recline.


The trip is also something that exists solely in the realm of imagination, because what I’m sitting in is just a model, built out of high-density foam board that was sculpted in the enormous milling machine behind me.

Archer, which was founded in 2018, has built a two-seat demonstration craft called Maker—it looks a bit like an oversize hornet envisioned by Ridley Scott—where it tests its technology. The four-seater (plus pilot) model, which Archer intends to unveil next year, is its ultimate production aircraft. Journeys of up to 60 miles, at speeds up to 150 mph, Archer says, will eliminate hours currently spent on the road, and these will be possible in 2025, because the company has vowed to have its aircraft certified by the Federal Aviation Administration by the end of 2024.

Archer execs envision building a next-generation flying taxi service, allowing people to leap over highway traffic in a vehicle to which we’ll feel so much emotional attachment we’ll buy an Archer sweatshirt. (The preflight routine includes merch.)


The company also intends to sell its flying car to partners, including airlines, so “maybe not on day one, but one day,” says Archer cofounder Adam Goldstein, you’ll be able to avoid the airport experience entirely, checking in behind security at a vertiport and Archering directly to your plane. (Of course Goldstein believes that Archer will become a verb.)

Goldstein, speaking quickly and forcefully, slips into what has to be his recruiting pitch, given that everyone I talk to at Archer utters some version of it: “The last time anyone mass-produced planes was World War II. We have a chance to be part of this new boom in aviation.”

All that stands in Goldstein’s way are the fact that this has never been done and that there are more than 200 startups—with some 630 designs—also seeking to dominate this emerging industry. Oh, and one of those rivals, Wisk Aero, a joint venture between Google cofounder Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk and Boeing, is trying to sue Archer out of existence.


[Illustration: Tavis Coburn]
The first successful airplane took off in 1903, and almost immediately thereafter dreamers began working on a flying car. The concept embedded itself in the public consciousness as the avatar of innovation, and ever since, this achievement has seemed both tantalizingly close, and—in our inability to reach it—a sign, to some, of stagnation in American ingenuity. As Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund declared in a 2011 manifesto: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

Most of today’s flying cars—including what Archer and Wisk are building—are what the aviation industry has dubbed electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (eVTOLs). In the last two decades, advances in battery technology, propulsion systems, and sense-and-avoid technology have converged with the societal challenges of paralyzing urban traffic and the need for more sustainable travel to advance flying-car efforts. Eccentric tinkerers have yielded to a big-money, high-stakes competition to own urban air mobility.

“We don’t think investors are prepared for the scope of this revolution,” write the authors of a Morgan Stanley report predicting that this will be a $1 trillion market by 2040.


With that kind of potential jackpot, little wonder that Archer and Wisk, two of the most well-funded flying-car companies, are embroiled in a bitter court battle that is captivating the industry. Both are building electric aircraft featuring 12 rotors on a fixed wing, 6 of which can rotate downward. But how Archer arrived at the so-called 12-tilt-6 design is at the heart of the suit.

Wisk, which is also working on a four-passenger craft, is accusing Archer of stealing trade secrets in the wake of hiring away 17 Wisk employees. Archer is countersuing Boeing for $1 billion in damages, the amount Archer claims that it lost because Wisk launched a “false and malicious extrajudicial smear campaign” that’s impacted its ability to access capital and has impaired business relationships.

The fallout from the lawsuit could certainly sink Archer, which raised $857.6 million last year when it went public via a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) led by billionaire investment banker Ken Moelis. The company has put zero dollars aside in the event it loses, according to its May quarterly filings, where it reported $704 million in cash on hand. Meanwhile, if Wisk loses, the embattled Boeing, facing challenges across its aerospace portfolio, could pull the plug.


Regardless of the suits, success is far from assured. In the version of eVTOLs that Archer and Wisk have built, the rotors needed to lift the aircraft are also aerodynamically draggy while in flight. As any aviation engineer knows, the transition from hovering to flying is one of the hardest things to pull off. One could say the same of the flying-car industry itself.

Boeing’s history with flying cars goes back at least to the mid-1990s. A company engineer named Henry Lahore evaluated the existing projects at the time. He told the Christian Science Monitor in 1994 that Canadian engineer Paul Moller’s Skycar “happens to be the best of all that I’ve looked at.”

Much like today’s flying taxis, Skycar took off and landed vertically, like a helicopter. Lahore recommended that Boeing invest—twice. Boeing passed. Lahore, who is now retired, tells me that the company wasn’t interested in anything that would carry fewer than 100 passengers.


Wisk: Founded, 2010; last funding, $450 million; first hover, 2016 [Illustration: Tavis Coburn]
Google cofounder Larry Page started to put some of his fortune behind the concept in 2010, first with a company called Levt that became Zee.Aero the following year.

“We were trying to answer the question, Are these vehicles technically feasible?” says Geoff Bower, an engineer who landed at Zee in its early days when his Stanford PhD adviser became the company’s founding CEO. Page eventually folded Zee into yet another flying-car startup that he bankrolled, Kitty Hawk. While in stealth mode, Kitty Hawk won dozens of patents, and it thought it had a winner with a fixed-wing, 12-rotor design.

By 2017, there were already 50 promising urban air mobility startups, and Boeing, which has played a role in any number of aviation milestones since William Boeing flew his first seaplane in 1916, appeared to be falling behind. It didn’t have an investment in any of them. One of its executives tried to put a happy spin on the company’s status, suggesting that while everyone else had an MP3 player, Boeing would eventually release an iPod. In October 2017, the company spent an undisclosed sum to acquire Aurora Flight Services, which had recently beaten out Boeing for a government contract for a next-generation vertical takeoff and landing plane.


Boeing debuted its own eVTOL prototype in January 2019, featuring an eight-rotor design for vertical lift, and six months later announced a partnership with Kitty Hawk around the startup’s air taxi, Cora. By year’s end, this formally became a joint venture dubbed Wisk. Boeing needed someone to run Wisk, and execs recalled that the CEO of an ocean drone startup it had acquired in 2016 had spent the last several years running around to make himself and his company “bigger than life,” as that CEO, Gary Gysin, admits. That effort to prevent his $30 million company from getting lost inside Boeing earned Gysin his shot.

Boeing shut down its own eVTOL program and “doubled down, tripled down on Wisk,” says Gysin, a likable career sales executive with an easy laugh. (In the late 1990s, as head of a small software utilities startup, he was inspired by a Far Side cartoon to name a product Save Butt; it let users correct the accidental deleting of a file.) Boeing invested an undisclosed amount in Wisk’s previous funding round, and in January kicked in another $450 million.

Wisk’s sixth-generation aircraft—a soon-to-be-revealed four-seater that will be the vehicle it intends to submit for FAA certification—will be autonomous. Former Boeing engineer Lahore estimates that the company’s resources could shave three to five years off Wisk’s certification timeline. Instead of having to test which kind of aircraft composite material handles the most stress, Wisk can check Boeing’s database, Gysin says. Ditto for battery technology, avionics, autonomy, and the fuselage. The team that developed Aurora’s eVTOL, Pegasus, is now working with Wisk. “There are all sorts of cool things we’re tapping into,” he says.


“Science projects.” That’s Archer cofounder Goldstein’s frequently used—and dismissive—term for all of the earlier efforts to create a flying taxi. Goldstein, along with business partner Brett Adcock, decided to take on what they call the “sustainable transport” industry, because it was “a much bigger project,” Goldstein says, than Vettery, the recruiting software platform that they cofounded, ran, and sold in 2018 for more than $100 million.

The duo, University of Florida alums who met in New York (“Archer” comes from Archer Road, the commercial strip near the Florida campus) reasoned that success had been elusive because companies did not prioritize the specific goal of getting to market.

[Illustration: Tavis Coburn]
From Archer’s founding in October 2018, this drive to commercialization has fueled everything about the company. Adcock and Goldstein’s singular focus hooked Archer’s first investor, e-commerce billionaire Marc Lore, and the strength of his name helped them get their LinkedIn emails to engineers returned.


In late 2019, the pair went to Silicon Valley and started to meet with engineering talent. The industry was at an inflection point when Archer arrived: young enough that the talent pool was not only tiny but all knew each other (“like the early days of search” is how people frequently explained it to me).

Adcock and Goldstein hired Wisk’s VP of engineering to serve in that same role for Archer and then, often after multiple invitations, they met with other Wisk employees or ones with prior experience at Zee or Kitty Hawk.

One Wisk engineer described the dynamic in a December 2019 email that he wrote to himself (on his Wisk account) after meeting Adcock and Goldstein. “Tried to convince me wisk is higher risk than their company (archer) because wisk will be consumed and killed by Boeing. it was unclear if they’ve actually raised money. they have someone lined up that will help them raise money once they have a good team in place i think? know they need $200 mil for a first play and $500-$1000 [$500 million to $1 billion] for type certified [an FAA-approved aircraft]. they think that’s a slam dunk.”


At that time, Archer consisted of the founders, two engineers, and a couple dozen grad students at the University of Florida who were working on this project at the engineering college’s electric vehicle design lab, thanks to a donation from Adcock and Goldstein to their alma mater. (In December 2020, the university formally named it the Archer Aviation eVTOL Lab in “grateful recognition” for their “generous contributions.”)

But the industry, thanks in large part to the diaspora of engineers from Page’s flying-car projects, was now established enough that a flying-car aspirant could buy an off-the-shelf aircraft design from an engineering company rather than spend years developing one. In the race to market, Archer bought one of these designs from a firm full of Zee alums. Many of its aircraft’s parts, such as its battery system, are also off the shelf.

Although the one Wisk engineer who documented his Archer meeting via email stayed put, many others bought Adcock and Goldstein’s pitch. Ten Wisk employees joined Archer between January 8 and January 14, 2020. Archer’s generous pay packages—upward of $400,000 annually, plus stock—likely helped.


In May 2020, Archer came out of stealth mode with about 40 engineers. It publicly revealed Lore as its financial backer, and the company’s $55.7 million Series A fundraising included Lore’s friends Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez.

Goldstein tells me that Lore helped them with more than just money. For example, he insisted that they hire a lawyer “who specializes in employee mobility issues,” as Adcock and Goldstein wrote in an email to one of their Wisk hires on January 3, 2020. This attorney would steer this person “through a clean exit.” Goldstein brings up that this was on Lore’s advice before I can even ask.

“Every single person that’s come through Archer—it’s part of Marc Lore’s thing—everyone has to get screened by a lawyer to say, ‘Do not bring over any trade secrets.’ We pay for the lawyer, but it’s, like, your lawyer.” Like many stories that Archer execs share, this is an alloyed truth. A spokesperson for Lore says he’s actually “anti-lawyer” and suggested this only for big hires.

In February 2021, amid the flurry of early-stage companies going public via SPAC, flying-taxi startups took advantage of the opportunity to secure capital from retail investors. Archer, along with competitors Joby Aviation and Blade, all announced their intent that month to go public via SPAC.

Adcock and Goldstein also revealed a partnership with United Airlines, in which the major Boeing customer invested in Archer and said it would buy up to 200 air taxis. Archer’s investor presentation touted 17 direct hires from Wisk. It also highlighted Bower, its chief engineer, though it did not note that he had worked at Zee for five years before going to Airbus in 2016.

Wisk, which hired a forensics firm in 2020 in the wake of Archer’s recruitment blitz and believed it discovered stolen files, had had enough. In March 2021, the FBI raided the home of an Archer employee who had allegedly downloaded Wisk documents to a USB drive shortly before leaving Wisk for Archer. “Only when Archer released its February 2021 investor materials, containing a technical description and detailed photos of its proposed aircraft architecture,” Wisk’s complaint states, “was the full scope of Archer’s intellectual property theft revealed.”

When Wisk filed its lawsuit in April 2021, alleging trade secret misappropriation and patent infringement, the joint venture had been rather quiet since it had announced its existence 16 months earlier. Boeing had been grappling with the fallout of the 737 Max crashes, the plane’s grounding, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In September 2020, Boeing “paused” the work of its future mobility division, dubbed NeXt, that had included its eVTOL development.

“Organizations like these only have the privilege to exist when you have a healthy core business,” wrote the executive in charge, according to a leaked email. NeXt—and Wisk—had been forged when the company had record financial results, but Boeing’s 2020 revenue would fall more than 40% from its 2018 peak, and the company swung from $15.3 billion in operating cash flow to a loss of $12.8 billion. Reports of NeXt being mothballed included a glancing reference to Wisk also being in trouble, but Gysin tells me, “We were never in danger. We had to go through an evaluation, but everybody had to go through an evaluation.”

Archer: Founded, 2018; last funding, $857.6 million; first hover, 2021 [Illustration: Tavis Coburn]
Wisk still didn’t even have a sign marking its offices, but the lawsuit and accompanying corporate blog posts and press releases loudly announced the company’s presence. “It appears that Archer Aviation, a new entrant in the eVTOL market, is seeking to gain a foothold in this industry without respecting the rules of fair competition,” the company sniffed in a post pointing the public to the litigation. A May 2021 follow-up stated, “Wisk is fully cooperating with the FBI and Department of Justice in their criminal investigation into Archer relating to the theft and use of Wisk’s intellectual property,” conflating the investigation into one former Wisk employee with the whole company.

The blog posts were eventually removed. “This case has nothing to do with the design of Archer’s aircraft and everything to do with the success of Archer’s business—and the failure of Wisk,” Archer replied in its counterclaim. A year later, Goldstein, who wears on his right wrist a red string bracelet that his wife gave him to ward off the evil eye, still gets almost incoherent with rage when discussing how Wisk’s lawsuit arrived while Archer was lining up its financing.

Archer did succeed in going public last September, but it took in less than the $1.1 billion it originally hoped for after 48.5% of investors chose to ask for a refund as part of the routine completion of the SPAC. Later that month, Wisk came out of what Gysin acknowledges was “essentially stealth mode” (conservatively, this is the third time Kitty Hawk or Wisk exited stealth mode). Gysin decided to do so, he tells me, because of “everybody in the industry being so overamped because they were going to SPAC, and doing a lot of blue sky and lofty kinds of things.” The move only reinforced Archer’s belief that Wisk was interfering with its business.

There is so much backbiting amid the flurry of filings in Wisk Aero v. Archer Aviation that the judge has told both sides to focus “on what really matters” as the case heads to trial in early 2023. The litigation is a classic 21st-century intellectual property dispute that makes for compelling reading—can you see yourself reformatting, possibly accidentally, a USB drive with sensitive work files?—while not being terribly cinematic (see: reformatting USB drives).

This dispute is also overlaid with the specter of COVID-19, in that the employee who allegedly stole nearly 5,000 files did so on Christmas Day 2019. He was working because he couldn’t go back to his family in Wuhan.

A judge rejected Wisk’s motion for a preliminary injunction. But when Archer filed a motion to dismiss the case, the judge denied that as well, ruling that Wisk “has plausibly alleged that Archer misappropriated at least some of [Wisk’s trade secrets].” Separately, in February, federal prosecutors said they wouldn’t be charging the employee who downloaded the some 5,000 files.

Wisk execs say that because this is active litigation, they can’t discuss it. “I can say we’re doing what’s in [our] best interests,” Dan Dalton, Wisk’s VP of global partnerships tells me, “and so, it’s going well at Wisk.”

Goldstein, who became Archer’s sole CEO in April after his cofounder Adcock abruptly left the company (“It was a board-level decision,” Goldstein says. “It’s just easier without two bosses”) claims the lawsuit doesn’t keep him up at night. (Adcock did not respond to a request for comment.)

Goldstein spends a full 23 minutes over our allotted interview time, making him late to a conference call, to explain how baseless and “nefarious” the suit is. “I was told never to give an analogy,” he says, referring to the media training he’s received. He invites me to think of one, so long as it’s “really bad.”

What the lawsuit obscures, though, are all the ways in which we are nowhere close to getting a flying car.

Wisk is betting that any company that gets its aircraft FAA-certified to fly with a pilot, as Archer intends to do by the end of 2024, will ultimately be playing catch-up.

“We believe it will take them years, actually, to get to the point of self-flying,” Gysin says, estimating that it’ll cost Wisk $2 billion to get its vehicle to market, or two to four times more than Archer’s Goldstein maintains will be his cost to do so. “We won’t announce, ‘We’re going to fly in 2025,'” Gysin says, allowing himself a swipe at the competition. “We just don’t do it because we’re not, and it can’t be true because as an aircraft developer it’s not up to you.”

Archer’s strategy in getting its flying machine certified with a pilot is that it will allow the company to generate enough cash—by selling its aircraft to United and others and running an air-taxi service that will take a slice of the helicopter market—to fund its self-flying development. But making real money operating a piloted flying-car service will be challenging. On this point, both Archer and Wisk agree. For one, the pilot shortage.

“It’s going to be hard to convince [pilots] that they should fly back and forth across Miami 50 times a day for kind of lower rates,” says Wisk’s Dalton, who also oversees autonomy and certification. (Miami, of course, is one of Archer’s announced launch cities.) Plus, Uber and Lyft are not profitable by any conventional accounting, particularly on ride-hailing.

But both Wisk and Archer still use Uber as a point of comparison for their future services. “We don’t want it to be UberBlack, if you will. We want it to be UberX,” Gysin says, otherwise declining to be more specific about pricing. Goldstein projects that Archer will ferry passengers for between $3 and $4 per mile per person. A trip from Manhattan to JFK airport, according to Archer’s February 2021 investor presentation, would cost $50 per person, versus $76 for UberX.

Business models aside, the FAA currently has no mechanism to certify a self-flying passenger vehicle. At present, there’s also no way for self-flying planes to communicate with air traffic control. (Wisk plans for headsets that let passengers talk to someone on the ground.) This makes Archer’s projections for investors that it’ll have a certified pilotless flying car by 2028 rather rosy. (Wisk will not divulge its timeline but says the FAA is aware and supportive of it.)

Gysin says that the technology side of things doesn’t worry him. Instead, he frets about stitching everything together: the detect-and-avoid technologies, sensors, optical radar, airspace integration. The cabin has to be right, or you have something that could fly but nobody wants to ride in it. He acknowledges they’ve got a ton of educating to do to convince people that pilots actually stand in the way of a much safer experience.

“Emotionally you think it’s riskier,” he says of autonomous flight, “but logically it will be safer.” Human error, according to the FAA, is the top cause of both commercial and private crashes.

If Gysin can get everything to work in concert, then he, like Goldstein, envisions his company as a verb at the center of a platform, Wisking passengers from first mile to last. Wisk, though, will partner for everything but the flying machine itself. “We’re not silly enough to think we’re going to do all that stuff,” Gysin says. But “all that stuff” doesn’t yet exist.

“The vehicles may well be ready and certified before the infrastructure is ready,” says Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center and the author of a 2022 report on the future of civil aviation.

Maybe because Archer’s own history is so abbreviated, the company strives hard to link itself to the most storied events in aviation, as if it could draft off of them. Goldstein likes to mention that Eric Wright, Archer’s head of certification, is a descendant of Orville and Wilbur. Wright put a scrap of wing fabric, one of the only surviving pieces of the Wright Flyer, aboard the Archer Maker’s first flight, which the company timed to take place “the week of the 118th anniversary” of the brothers’ first Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, flight, as a press release put it.

Everyone I speak with at Archer also mentions the ways in which their airplane—and they often call it that—flies basically the same way as the Wright Flyer did, only with a battery. “Once we transition away from our vertical and transition mode, we’re back to 1903,” Wright says. “Our certified airplane will spend the majority of time actually flying like an airplane, because that’s the most efficient way to fly.”

The statement is supposed to be reassuring—the plane would glide in the improbable event it lost power!—and confident (certifying Archer’s aircraft isn’t that much of a stretch). Instead, though, it makes this would-be travel revolution seem as chimeric as, well, flying cars.

A version of this story appears in the September 2022 issue of Fast Company.


About the author

Courtney Rubin writes about medicine, health, fitness, and wellness. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, Rolling Stone, and other publications


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