It is difficult to decide whether the flying taxis arrive very late or extremely early. For one thing, the promise of air taxis zipping from one skyscraper to another has been a staple of science fiction for decades. On the other hand, not so long ago, air taxis were ranked in the “we’ll see” folder of future technologies, alongside hoverboards and hotels on the Moon.
But after years of wishful thinking, it suddenly happens. Investment in advanced air mobility (as the industry is known) has more than tripled in the past year, and Morgan Stanley analysts expect the global air taxi market to reach 2.7 billion. pounds sterling by 2050.
Sooner or later, the future is on its way and will come to earth sooner than most people think. A number of companies around the world are preparing eVTOL vehicles (electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles), which could revolutionize the way we get around big cities.
Quiet, comfortable and carbon-free, eVTOLs promise to rise above congested roads, alleviating urban transport problems while getting passengers to their destinations in record time. Meanwhile, regulators on the ground are working hard to prepare the rules and infrastructure needed to make this new form of transport feasible.
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Many developers believe their vehicles will be safety certified and cleared for takeoff by 2025, if not sooner. Boeing, Airbus and Hyundai are some of the household names that build air taxis. Another is Joby, which bought Uber Elevate, the ride-sharing giant’s foray into eVTOLs, in December 2020. Meanwhile, UK-based company Vertical claims to have the most conditional pre-orders with the likes of Virgin Atlantic and American Airlines among investors. queuing for his VA-X4 vehicle.
“It will be a quiet and pleasant, fast and efficient way to get around,” says Andrew Macmillan, director of infrastructure at Vertical. “[The VA-X4] allows you to travel more than 100 miles [160km] at 200mph [322km/h]. It takes off vertically and then transitions to flying horizontally, giving you that range.
The VA-X4 will carry four passengers and a pilot. In the back, two pairs of people will be seated facing each other like in the back of a London taxi. As a payer, you can look out the windows and chat with your fellow travelers without the need for hearing protection or microphones. Indeed, like the majority of eVTOLS, the VA-X4 flies using silent electric rotors which, per trip, produce less carbon than a Tesla traveling the same distance on the roads below.
Air taxis are not exactly the flying cars promised by The Jetsons, blade runner and Back to the future, yet. Rather, it is an electrified air transport scaled down to the proportions of a dark cabin. It’s Uber for the sky. Think helicopters without emissions or reliance on a main rotor.
“Helicopters are amazing machines, but they’re quite loud, they’re very expensive, and they’re also quite dangerous,” Macmillan says. “One of the reasons the VA-X4 is safe is that you have eight rotors, all electric, and each of them has a separate motor. If you lose one, you don’t lose the vehicle.
While eVTOLs are revolutionary in what they could do for urban transportation, they are more scalable in terms of the underlying technology. Electric propulsion, super efficient batteries and lightweight composites underpin the design of air taxis and it all comes from technologies developed in tandem sectors.
“I think we’ve been able to reap some of the benefits of what’s happening on the electric propulsion side of the surface,” says Clint Harper, urban air mobility researcher at Urban Movement Labs, a nonprofit organization designed to facilitate future transport. fix in Los Angeles. “The overall design of the aircraft, how it flies, how it stays in the air, you know, we’re building on the lessons that have been learned over the last century of air travel.”
The thing is, eVTOLs aren’t flying cars at all. “It’s really about aviation — the next evolution of it: quieter, cleaner, more sustainable aviation,” says Harper’s colleague Sam Morrissey, executive director of Urban Movement Labs. “Once we reframe it into aviation, I think people understand how and why we’re going to see these new vehicles and this new technology as quickly as we will.”
Integrating air taxis into cities
Urban Movement Labs is helping the city of Los Angeles prepare for the advent of eVTOL. The famous horizontal city has grown by sprawl and its highways are notorious for traffic jams. Morrissey thinks advanced air mobility could alleviate problems on the ground and “make travel happen in a way that isn’t [currently] physically possible. »
His example travels from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, 15 miles [24km] a way. “It is physically impossible to do this trip in less than 30 minutes. But, let’s say my child was in a hospital in Santa Monica, with this new technology, I could make that trip in minutes.
Los Angeles isn’t the only place gearing up for flying taxis. São Paulo, Osaka and Singapore are among the sprawling, densely populated global cities in various stages of planning for advanced air mobility. Closer to home, Europe’s first “vertiport” – the name for eVTOL landing sites – is being built in France in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Vertiports have also been proposed for the Kingdom UK, where a number of intercity eVTOL routes have already been planned.
Imagine traveling across the country from Liverpool to Hull, or flying over water from South Wales to Cornwall, or from Belfast to Glasgow. Even a seemingly pedestrian journey from Heathrow Airport to Cambridge takes two hours or more by car or train. You can do it in 20 minutes in an air taxi.
However, for these trips to become a reality, much more planning and infrastructure is required. eVTOLs can connect to existing air traffic control structures and communication frequencies, but regulators will need to develop new licensing and accreditation standards. There is also the rather pressing question of where exactly air taxis will land and take off.
At first, they’ll likely fly to and from existing airports and helipads, but very soon they’ll need their own spaces in our cities, says Harper. “Once we talk about integrating these into the urban fabric of neighborhoods or communities, there are a lot of things to think about,” he adds. “That’s going to require a dedicated infrastructure, which includes charging those vehicles, maintaining and servicing them, and storing them overnight.”
In science fiction, flying cars often dock on skyscrapers, but this is unlikely to be practical in the real world. Would you go up to the top floor of a tall building just to get a taxi? Morrissey thinks vertiports could instead be built above or alongside existing transport hubs so passengers can connect from one mode to another. “We see this as integration with existing bus, rail and transit networks in places that are true multimodal hubs,” he says.
Planning is vital. In the past, new transportation technologies have appeared and surprised society. “The steam locomotive was created and we had to build tracks and railways. The bicycle and the internal combustion engine were invented and we had to build roads,” says Morrissey. Even today’s electric scooters have caught governments and city planners napping, with vehicles hitting the road before rules were established to govern their use.
There’s reason to believe Advanced Air Mobility will be different, though. There is a (metaphorical) trail between now and vehicle launch, during which planners have time to figure out how, where and why eVTOLs should fly. “I think for the very first time in human history, we are able to develop a transportation system to serve a new mode of transportation before that mode of transportation existed,” says Morrissey.
In addition to flying taxis, eVTOLs could be used for search and rescue, transporting organs for transplantation, as well as delivery and tourism. Estimates vary, but we could see hundreds, if not thousands, in the skies over the UK in the coming decades, with remotely piloted or even automated vehicles arriving in time. Regardless of how many there are, experts now agree that it’s not a question of if, but when the technology will arrive.
“Security certification is the tipping point,” Macmillan says. “Once you start seeing it happen, you know it’s real because you’ll just see them flying through the air.”
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