During a recent CoMotion discussion, officials from companies like Uber and Wisk Aero discussed the opportunities and hurdles presented by small, electric aircrafts as a means of shuttling riders through cities.
Visions of the flying car overlapping with ride-hailing services have been generating more than just skepticism and raised eyebrows. There are actual policy questions that need answering as the nascent technology continues to advance.
The company Wisk Aero is developing small, autonomous, electric flying vehicles capable of vertical take-off and landing in urban areas, while Uber is exploring the urban air taxi development through its Elevate initiative. And any number of companies from Amazon to smaller startups are experimenting with drone delivery systems.
When CoMotion launched four years ago, said John Rossant, founder and CEO of the think tank for next-generation mobility, “urban air mobility was barely on the radar” and came up in passing conversations.
“Every edition of CoMotion LA, it’s become more and more important. It gets more space,” he added during a recent virtual panel discussion titled “The Sky’s the Limit.”
The idea of small aircraft buzzing through city skies is obviously raising a number of questions around safety, regulations, costs, urban design, transportation policy and other issues.
“We’ve taken a fundamentally partnership-based approach in this initiative, in that we have worked to build alliances with manufacturers, with regulators at both the national and state and local level,” said Eric Allison, head of aviation programs at Uber, and leader of the Elevate initiative, during the discussion. “Because we know that to bring a new system of mobility — a new form of mobility — into practical and wide use, it really is a system problem. And you have to look at it from that holistic perspective that takes into account all of these different pieces.”
For starters, Allison does not envision the urban air taxi phenomenon will launch as an autonomous form of transportation.
“We certainly believe that this starts with piloted vehicles,” said Allison, adding 2023 could be when some highly limited Uber air taxi operations take flight. In vehicles that are "highly automated, but not autonomous,” said Allison.
For its part, Wisk, a joint venture between Boeing and Kitty Hawk, an electric aircraft startup, has skipped the pilot, and is developing autonomous air transportation with small two-person electric aircraft.
“In order for this industry to scale, we really believe that this has to be a self-piloted aircraft,” said Dan Dalton, vice president of global partnerships at Wisk.
Not all urban design visionaries are on board with the flying taxi concept. Florian Lennert, head of mobility at NEOM, a futuristic planned city in Saudi Arabia, questioned the idea against any number of concerns such as sustainability, equity or development patterns which could exacerbate suburban sprawl.
“In a sense, this is the first time in thousands of years... to add a non-wheel-based form of transport to our transport mix,” Lennert offered the discussion.
“We also, though, want to make sure we don’t commit the same 20th century mistake, and simply put the car in the sky,” he added. “Because that would simply be transforming a problem from the ground to the sky.”
To move large numbers of people, cities should continue to focus on efficient public mass transit, said Lennert, adding urban air mobility should be shared and integrated into a multimode transit system.
“Urban air mobility will never be able to move the loads that something like the Tube in London or the metro systems in Hong Kong or Singapore do,” he said.
“I don’t think, in the end, it [urban air taxis] will form an efficient way of moving people around in cities,” said Lennert.
Much as local transportation officials have been involved in establishing the regulations and operations of micro-mobility devices like bikes and scooters, expect them to have a role in determining how aerial urban mobility is regulated, deployed and integrated into the transportation ecosystem, say experts.
“In order to have acceptance of this new form of mobility, we have to have all of the key stakeholders at the table,” said Allison. “And that’s not just cities, from a government-public perspective, but also the broader public, from the community perspective. We want people to want this form of mobility in their communities. Not to oppose it.”
To be sure, launching a truly new form of mobility — particularly one as futuristic as this one — will require significant developments on both the technology fronts, as well as the regulatory framework, say officials.
“It’s got to be safe, first and foremost,” said Dalton.
“And it’s got to be reliable, and if you have those two things, you get trust,” he added.