Personal Aircraft Are flying taxis ready for take-off?
With increasing levels of traffic on our roads, flying taxis could be the answer to easing congestion. But how passenger-ready are early prototypes, and how ready is the general public for the next phase in air travel?
In some cities across the world, drivers can waste an average of 11 days stuck in traffic. As the number of cars on our roads increase, our transport infrastructures continue to feel the strain. This leads to all sorts of problems, from increased road accidents, to rising carbon emissions.
Shared mobility is one way to ease congestion, but what if the ultimate solution isn’t to be found on our roads, but in our sky?
Air taxis, or flying cars, as they’re often known, are a new type of vehicle that are being heralded as a potential answer to our increasing road traffic problem. Aesthetically, air taxis have more in common with helicopters than cars, with their spinning rotors and glider-like wings, but their principle is the same – deliver passengers to their desired destinations.
The air taxi market in 2020
According to a Morgan Stanley Research study, the market for air taxis is set to grow over the next decade, soaring to $1.5 trillion globally by 2040. A study by Frost & Sullivan predicts that air taxi flights will begin as early as 2022 in Dubai, with more than 430,000 units in operation by 2040.
Driving this growth, is a combination of technologies, including autonomous drones, self-driving cars, efficient batteries and advanced manufacturing techniques.
Some of the industry’s biggest players include NASA, Boeing, Airbus and Uber, all racing against ambitious startups like Wisk and current market leader, Volocopter to be the first commercial provider on the scene.
Volocopter, is a German company that piloted its first test flight in 2013 and can reach speeds of up to 100 km/h. Airbus’s ‘Vahana’ air taxi has since reportedly completed more than 100 test flights and is said to be able to cruise at 190km/h.
Given the rate at which air taxis are taking off, what are some of the variables that will impact their passenger-readiness?
One of the biggest challenges that flying taxis face is being able to hold enough electrical charge to make multiple journeys. The amount of charge a vehicle can hold will ultimately impact its bottom line from a commercial viewpoint.
UK-based company Vertical Aerospace is currently working on its third air taxi prototype that’s said to have a range of 100 miles. Whereas, US-based Joby Aviation is said to be planning a prototype with a range of 150 miles. All the while, German company Lilium, is reported to have an air taxi protype that can travel up to 200 miles between charges.
In order to for air taxis to be commercially viable, their charge efficiency would need be increased. By comparison, the Tesla Model S Long Range is able to travel 375 miles on the road, in a single charge.
Noise pollution levels
Another variable that will determine the readiness of flying taxis is how noisy they will be. We’re all aware of how loud a helicopter (or a low-flying plane) is, so will air taxis be just as noisy?
According to Volocopter, its vehicle has a low rotor tip speed, which would generate around one third of the noise of a helicopter. Similarly, Uber’s flying car reports that its slow-spinning electric motors will keep noise levels to that of a hum.
It’ll certainly be interesting to see how noise levels are managed as the marketplace matures and industry standards take hold.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle that air taxis face is passenger safety, particularly with autonomous air vehicles. In 2019, the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) published conditions for Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) vehicles to demonstrate failure rates similar to commercial aeroplanes.
They also need to adhere to weight and passenger restrictions, as well as having backup engines, batteries and flight control systems. Consequently, Volocopter has since become the first company to meet the new regulations following a series of audits.
Industry compliance aside, undoubtedly, the biggest hurdle air taxis will face in regards to safety is gaining public trust. How willing would you be to jump in an air taxi as opposed to a road taxi? As time goes on, we’d expect public trust to increase as data is gathered on success rates.
For air taxis to be embraced by the general public, journeys will need to be affordable. Aviation companies know that they’ll struggle commercially, if their service is only available to the wealthy.
A report published by investment bank Citigroup, estimates that an air taxi journey will cost around $6.04 per kilometre, which would work out at double the cost of a current road-based ride-hailing provider.
Similarly, at the 2018 Uber Elevate conference in LA, Uber confirmed that that their air taxi, uberAIR, wouldn’t be cheaper than road travel on a cost per passenger basis, at least not initially. The air taxi service would cost $5.73 per passenger mile, reducing to $1.86, before eventually lowering to $0.44 per passenger mile, which would then make it more affordable than road travel.
So, are flying taxis ready for take-off? Given the optimism surrounding current prototypes and the fact that manned test flights are already underway, the future looks bright for air taxis. The biggest hurdle aviation companies will face in the near-future will likely be convincing the public that journeys will be safe. Through time, we’d expect air taxi services to become more affordable as marketplace competition drives down prices. In turn, this would increase the uptake of air taxi services by the public.