Artist's rendering of an Alef flying car parked in a standard parking space. (Photo/Courtesy Alef Aeronautics)
Artist's rendering of an Alef flying car parked in a standard parking space. (Photo/Courtesy Alef Aeronautics)

In Silicon Valley, Alef’s post-Soviet CEO imagines a future with flying cars

Updated March 31, 2023 at 2:06 p.m. to correct Leonid Dukhovny’s profession.

In between the countless flight tests of his company’s flying car, Alef Aeronautics CEO Jim Dukhovny is happy to take a walk on terra firma around downtown Palo Alto to discuss his company’s invention and his late father’s influence on this massive engineering project.

“It goes back to my father who taught me to bring positive things into the world despite the risks,” he said.

Leonid Dukhovny, a Jewish immigrant from Kyiv, Ukraine, led by example, Dukhovny said. His father was both mechanical engineer and a leader of folk singers, or bards, whose unauthorized gatherings in the Soviet Union defied the KGB’s control of all forms of expression.

The family immigrated to the Bay Area in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union when Dukhovny was a child. His family became pillars in the emigre community, he said.

“The values of kindness, freedom and expression that my father espoused in the bard singer movement are the same as the core values of Judaism,” he said.

His father continued organizing folk singer retreats for thousands of immigrants seeking to reconnect with creative self-expression in a new and unfamiliar country.

Alef CEO Jim Dukhovny (left) and his father Leonid (right)
Alef CEO Jim Dukhovny (left) and his father Leonid (right)

Dukhovny sought to emulate his father in the community in myriad ways, including organizing musical shows for the post-Soviet community, creating the Science Fiction Society of Silicon Valley, and becoming an engineer. He eventually co-founded this tech startup — something his father couldn’t have dreamed of doing under communism.

Dukhonvy sees the Jewish value of “chesed,” or kindness, in his father’s life and even in his own path. He ultimately sees this value in the “genesis of this company.”

The company name was purposely chosen, too.  According to Alef’s website, the founders picked the name because a number of alphabets, including Hebrew, start with this letter. The founders hope the name will reflect the “leading position Alef will eventually occupy” in people’s “hearts, minds and garages.”

During our walk around Palo Alto, we pass Coupa Cafe where Dukhovny said he sketched his first prototype of a flying car on a napkin in 2015.

Eight years ago, Dukhovny said, he and “genius co-founders” Constantine Kisly, Pavel Markin and Oleg Petrov met at the cafe to reimagine transportation as an industry that could make a genuinely positive impact on people’s lives.

Their premise became that highways in the sky — with safety regulations under the Federal Aviation Administration and with public buy-in — can revolutionize the way people travel and use their time, reminiscent of how cars replaced horses a century ago.

Several months ago, Alef publicly unveiled the Model A prototype. With a sumptuous charcoal gloss and a smooth body that encases tires and propellers, the electric flying car looks like a cross between a UFO and a classic Italian sports car. The exterior was, after all, created by a former Bugatti designer. The Model A, with an optimistic target production start in 2025, looks and drives like a car but can escape traffic by taking flight vertically like a helicopter.

Losing time on the road today is one of the most universally miserable situations.

When I see Model A in person at Alef in San Mateo, I notice that the car’s license plate says “OUTATIME,” just like Doc Brown’s time machine in “Back to the Future.” Dukhovny said that the film is a great inspiration to the team and that the phrase “out of time” is truly apt for the moment in countless ways.

“For example, losing time on the road today is one of the most universally miserable situations,” he said. “With Alef we can give people back their time, their freedom, their happiness.”

Like many Bay Area residents, Dukhovny is troubled that housing costs have made it impossible for so many restaurant workers, teachers, medical staff and even some tech employees to afford a home in the counties where they work. According to reports, a majority of firefighters live outside the counties they serve, including San Francisco. Meanwhile, police officers who work in some of the most expensive cities in the region report round-trip commutes of several hours.

Dukhovny acknowledges that Alef isn’t an instant silver bullet. He is aware of the technical and legislative challenges to opening airspace to commuter air travel.

Just as germane, he knows that $300,000, the current price of a Model A, is nowhere near his dream of a $35,000 flying car that’s more accessible to the average consumer. His goal is to build an affordable commuter flying car within the decade. To date, there are 450 preorders on the Model A waiting list. Alef’s seed round was more than $3 million, led by Tim Draper, an early Tesla investor.

Dukhovny’s dream is growing closer to reality, but tragically his father will not see the Model A’s launch. He died in a house fire in Mountain View on May 4, 2022. What might he have said if he were alive to see Model A fly?

“He’d probably have some serious ideas about technical modifications,” Dukhovny joked. “Mostly, he’d be proud that Alef is rooted in chesed and has the potential to truly impact people’s lives for the better.”

Valerie Demicheva
Valerie Demicheva

Valerie Demicheva is a journalist and photographer whose work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Women's Wear Daily and Silicon Valley Magazine. She's covered culture, tech, media, restaurants and philanthropy in the Bay Area for over a decade.