By: Michael McQueen
In years past, flying cars were the stuff of science fiction and fantasy. Developments of the last decade, however, are seeing the reality of this vision edge closer and closer.
Unlike the fantasy and luxury imagined in our previous visions, the future of our driving cars serves practical purposes – cutting down commute times, enhancing efficiency and enabling contactless transactions.
Driverless drone experiments and test flights have been running in Dubai since early 2017 and a New Zealand-based company Kitty Hawk, backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, is also making significant headway with an electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) vehicle. Called Heaviside, this new personal aircraft has a range of 100 miles and will be able to reach speeds of up to 180 mph. A February 2021 announcement that United Airlines will purchase $1 billion worth of electric ‘flying taxis’ to ferry passengers to hub airports reinforces the view that widespread personal drone transportation is not a case of if, but when.
Throughout 2021, numerous other players have ramped up tests of air taxi technology with some very promising signs.
One of the emerging leaders in this space is California-based Joby Aviation. Joby’s five-seater vehicles have a 150-mile range and can travel at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. According to Joby’s founder JoeBen Bevirt, the company will have an air taxi service operational and available to the public by 2024.
Bevirt’s vision is both audacious and inspiring: to save one billion commuters an hour per day by ferrying them around congested cities far above choking traffic. While the cost may be initially higher than a traditional rideshare, company modelling indicates that the cost of aerial trips will be the same as ground-based ridesharing.
Contrary to common assumptions, Joby’s VTOL vehicles are remarkably quiet – roughly 100 times quieter than a conventional helicopter. “When we first bring people to see our aircraft fly, the very first thing they remark on is the sound—or the lack thereof,” says Bevirt. “It sounds, even in a hover, like the leaves on a tree. You almost don’t hear it. This means they’ll be able to operate around dense, urban areas while blending into the background noise of cities.”
Although Joby’s air taxis will initially have human pilots, the plan is to move steadily towards autonomous operation by the end of the 2020s – by which time the company plans to be the world’s largest airline by departures.
German company Volocopter is certainly another player to watch. With agreements already secured to provide air taxis to Los Angeles, Paris, Singapore and Japan in the coming years, Volocopter has established itself as a leader in VTOL capability.
With an intended launch of their first commercial operation in 2024 (in time to service visitors at the 2024 Paris Olympics) Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter envisions that ‘Advanced Air Mobility’ will be commonplace by 2030. “As a consumer, I will be able to simply tap my smartphone and it will show me all the different options. And I can choose the one that best meets my specific needs at that time—whether my priority is the lowest price or the shortest trip or something else. The options will have to be 100% sustainable, there’s no doubt about that.”
This environmental appeal of eVTOLs is hard to ignore. After all, if an air taxi’s battery is charged with renewable power, an eVTOL’s operation will be carbon- neutral. Even if the grid is supplied by burning fossil fuels, research indicates that eVTOLs would still generate no more than a fifth of the emissions of a comparable helicopter. More significantly, modelling conducted by a team at the University of Michigan found that a fully loaded eVTOL would have 52% lower emissions than a traditional gas-powered car and 6% lower than an electric car.
In reflecting on the practicalities of achieving full autonomy in air taxis, Florian Reuter suggests it is an easier ask than getting traditional cars to the point of being completely driverless. “There are two reasons why I believe we’ll see much faster adoption of autonomous capabilities in the air than on the ground. First, airliners have been flying on autopilot for decades, so there’s a level of autonomy that we’re already very used to, and have mastered very safely, in the air. Second, the air is a much easier space to control than the ground.
A third exciting air taxi contender to watch is the UK-based Vertical Aerospace. In September 2021, Brazilian budget airline Gol struck a deal to begin trials of Vertical Aerospace’s VA-X4 with a view to roll out an air taxi service in São Paulo by 2025. With a battery only 20% to 50% larger than that of an electric sedan and a range of 100 miles, the Gol air taxis will be both efficient to run and inexpensive to use. Initial pricing will be on par with land-based ride-hailing services, with a target of about $1 per passenger mile.
The launch of mass scale air taxi services in cities worldwide will naturally require sizeable supporting infrastructure. To meet this need, numerous companies such as UK-based Urban-Air Port intend to build hundreds of ‘vertiports’ around the world in the coming years.
At a smaller scale, COVID-19 saw significant developments in the use of drones for parcel delivery too. This was perhaps most clearly evidenced by the FAA decision in late 2020 to approve drone deliveries in heavily populated residential areas. US grocery giant Kroger also commenced an autonomous drone delivery service in mid-2021. The initiative enabled 15-minute grocery deliveries in a number of key markets across North America. At roughly the same time, UPS purchased a fleet of eVTOL delivery aircraft from BETA Technologies with a view to transport time-sensitive packages which would otherwise be delivered via traditional aircraft. Each of the delivery drones has 250-mile range and a cruising speed of up to 170 miles per hour and, importantly, received the first U.S. Federal Aviation Administration certification to operate with an operator or autonomously.
The pace of development within this industry is startling. Within years we have seen innovations like delivery drones enter the norm and inventions we only ever thought of as fantasy actually take shape. Within the decade, we are likely to see air taxis acting like the new uber and autonomous drones becoming are principal delivery men and a viable option for transport. Suffice it to say, the future of flying cars is well and truly upon us.
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Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.
About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.