Just as with an airplane, hydrofoils use aerodynamic lift to rise just above the water once a certain speed is reached. This decreases drag, making the craft operate much more efficiently than if it were pushing through the waves. Passengers are, quite literally, flying.
The technology isn’t new; Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, later constructed a hydroplane. But a new startup called Navier (“NAV-ee-ay”) takes the idea a step further, looking to solve the age-old problem of how to move people efficiently across a lake or a bay on sleek, low-key luxurious “flying water taxis.”
The name sounds like a variation on “navigation” or “navy,” but it’s a reference to Claude-Louis Navier, the 19th century French physicist and engineer whose contributions to fluid mechanics remain central to that field of study. The company is betting on the eventual electrification of all forms of transit—specifically, what chief technology officer Kenny Jensen calls “the marine segment.”
“The thing about boats is they’re ridiculously inefficient. You’re getting a mile per gallon,” he said. “So if you tried to electrify those without changing anything, you’re either going to have no range or you’re going to be a giant floating battery.”
Jutting out from the foot of Townsend Street along Downtown San Francisco’s Embarcadero, the docks at Pier 40 are an ode to the city’s maritime past, when commerce and transportation largely occurred along the shoreline. On a recent visit, though, The Standard found they’re also home to Navier’s two current watercraft, one black, one white.
The electric-powered boats were built at a shipyard in Maine, and they’ve ventured around Miami, LA and elsewhere. Navier claims a range of 75 miles per charge, which takes about eight hours. Boaters can simply plug into the standard outlets at a marina, or use a supercharging device like the ones Tesla produces.
In spite of the term “water taxi,” Navier’s boats are meant as much for personal mobility than as a proverbial Uber of the Seven Seas, ferrying people six or eight at at time. They can get from Redwood City to the Embarcadero in 20 minutes, or across the bay to the company’s Alameda headquarters in under 15 minutes.
The ride itself is undeniably cool, a smooth and almost impossibly quiet jaunt. Technologically, it’s light-years beyond the analog ship that may set sail from Sausalito to Hawaii. Zipping under the Bay Bridge at 22 knots, passengers look upon the comparatively plodding ferries with no small amount of pity while yacht-rock playlists compile themselves in the back of their minds.
Admittedly, the $375,000 price tag puts hydrofoils out of the range of an average person, but future generations of Navier craft may put a dent in the pollution-emitting shipping industry as well as the world of personal transportation.
Co-founder Sampriti Bhattacharyya’s background is in aerospace robotics, and she applied her work on underwater drones—like Jensen, she holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—to create this next-generation vessel.
“We are very bullish about the vision and what it can enable,” she said. “It’s a game changer.”
There are other small advantages, like being able to move fairly quickly in a harbor that prohibits leaving a wake, the ability to operate near coral reefs with less risk of damage to fragile marine life and a reduced risk of seasickness. Pilots don’t need a license, either, because they steer and control the throttle while the computer handles most of the rest.
A technologist once bemoaned the fact that our timeline gave us 140 characters instead of flying cars, but now we have flying water taxis. Navier plans to have a few more craft in the water by next year, hoping to make its mark by 2035. The optimism is high-flying, the boats themselves considerably less so.
Astrid Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org