The 1982 sci-fi film "Blade Runner" may have missed the mark with its prediction of flying cars by November 2019, but 2020 looks to be a crucial year for the nascent mobility mode.
Uber pledged earlier this year that it would start testing its Uber Air flying taxi service in 2020, while more than 130 other companies also in various sections of the space are positioning themselves to deploy their own similar services. Uber officials have also continued to insist the electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOLs) will be widespread by 2023.
Some of the largest cities in the U.S. and internationally may soon find themselves as major testing grounds for the vehicles, even as issues around regulation, safety, technology and equity continue to swirl.
"I think we're a lot closer than most people would expect to providing that type of product to a customer that's any time, anywhere and for anyone," Mark Groden, CEO of air mobility company Skyryse, told Smart Cities Dive in an interview on the sidelines of the recent CoMotion LA conference.
At Uber's Elevate summit in June, the company confirmed it would conduct public tests of its eVTOLs in Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia and showcase some of its plans for "skyports," from where its flying taxis will land and take off.
But buzz around these developments has been quiet since that event. Uber did not respond to requests for comment on the state of the Uber Air initiative, whether it is still on track to start testing in 2020 and if there are any updates on its skyport plans. In a speech at the recent 2019 National Business Aviation Association's (NBAA) Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (NBAA-BACE), Uber Elevate head Eric Allison said designs are underway, but offered no more specifics.
There are clues, however, to indicate some progress is being made. In September, the company unveiled its first helipad test site in Frisco, TX, at the new Frisco Station development project. The city said that developer Hillwood Properties, which is behind Frisco Station, has partnered with Uber to create three "hubs" for flights.
Meanwhile, the conversation in Los Angeles seems to so far be revolving around how the city’s existing system of heliports can be used as take-off and landing zones for the vehicles, at least on a temporary basis. In 2014, the city eliminated the requirement for every high-rise building to have an emergency helipad in case of fire, though there are plenty of older buildings with the amenity to help get flying taxis off the ground.
"There are a lot of pads in LA that can support this type of transportation ecosystem and door-to-door travel that saves people time," Groden said. "Of course, the infrastructure will graduate and become more capable."
While there have been several skyport concept designs unveiled and a pledge from John Badalamenti, head of design at Uber Elevate, that skyports would be built in "months, not years," some remain unconvinced that the new options will be workable.
"I participated in a workshop last year when I was doing a pick-up and drop-off pilot for ride-share in San Francisco, and I was in the workshop and was like, 'This is the same damn problem. You don't even know where you're going to park these things. You don't know where you're going to pick up, you don't know where you're going to drop off,'" Danielle Harris, director of mobility innovation at startup incubator Elemental Excelerator, told Smart Cities Dive.
Technology and safety
Ride-hailing in the sky has already seen limited test rides with the introduction of the Uber Copter service in New York City earlier this year. That service has the company trialing its end-to-end technology to get riders a car to the helicopter take-off point, then have one meet them when they land.
Those moves toward seamless technology were also on display at CoMotion LA, where Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., Otis Elevator Company and Helinet Aviation Services showcased their own end-to-end app to help riders in Los Angeles access flying taxis atop multi-story parking structures.
"You have to rethink how buildings and mobility interact, you have to rethink how infrastructure and their connection points interact, and that brings up a whole bunch of stakeholders from the utility companies, policymakers, construction makers up through the inspectors that have to do clearances on things," Jonathan Hartman, disruptive technologies lead at Sikorsky Innovations, said during a panel discussion at CoMotion LA. Whether that seamless transition from one mode to another can be achieved, and at scale, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, business and cities hold concerns around safety. Groden said eVTOL companies should aspire for their vehicles to have the same degree of safety as an elevator, and that building trust should be the top priority.
"It's not just about building the technology in order to create that journey across the city, it's also about building trust with the customer in every single interaction," he said. "You do that by consistency. They know what to expect, they get what they expect every single time, and what they expect is something that makes them happy."
Such concerns are weighing heavily on some companies. Chinese startup EHang recently filed for an IPO with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and in its F-1 filing said safety concerns could undermine its business or ground it altogether while also causing "the public to lose confidence in our products and AAVs [autonomous aerial vehicles] generally."
"There are risks associated with autopilot, flight control, communications and other advanced technologies, and, from time to time, there have been accidents associated with these technologies," the company wrote.
Despite concerns, Thom Rickert, an emerging risks specialist at public entity insurance and risk management firm Trident Public Risk Solutions (part of Argo Group), said the industry should be capable of protecting itself from disasters.
"It's a technologically advanced helicopter, and the insurance industry has mechanisms to handle the exposure if the hull, if this $100,000 vehicle gets damaged, there's insurance for it," Rickert told Smart Cities Dive. "If it damages other people or property either within it or externally, then there is coverage available for it. The aviation market is robust and I'm certain will fill any gap that may emerge because of this type of technology."
Whether that technology is environmentally friendly is up for debate, too. In his speech at NBAA-BACE, Allison said with the right design, "you can actually achieve the same kind of vertical take-off and landing mission that helicopters are good at, but you can do it with low noise." Others are not so sure.
"Even if they are much quieter than helicopters, they will introduce a new type of noise to the city, anywhere near where they take off and land," public transit consultant Jarrett Walker wrote in a blog post. "Their presence overhead in any numbers will have physical and emotional effects on the population."
Questions of equity also remain, especially on how the companies will be able to make their flying taxi offerings financially viable for more than just the extremely wealthy. That comes into sharper focus with the companies offering little insight on what their vehicles cost to produce at scale.
Panelists at CoMotion LA expressed optimism in finding solid business models — Hartman said if solutions are safe and accessible, "demand is going to come a little more quickly than something not [safe and accessible]" — but others were not so sure.
"I think LA has their helipads, which is great, but for the most part this is not an easily scalable technology," Harris said. "I think it's once again, us catering to the extremely affluent. Who's going to be able to pay for the price for this to scale?"
How these vehicles will be regulated, and by which government agencies, is another pressing concern for flying car technologists and cities.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would likely be the lead agency for any U.S. regulation, while NASA and other agencies are likely to be involved. FAA spokespeople did not respond to Smart Cities Dive’s requests for comment on the state of any federal regulation or rulemaking.
For its part, Uber has previously said it does not believe any new laws or rules will be required to regulate flying cars. Allison said at an event hosted by media company Politico in June that existing aviation policies should suffice for the technology, while partnerships with local and state governments on skyport location and design will be key.
"We can get started by working with regulators to apply the rules in a way that's appropriate for the technology that's new, keeping safety at a very high bar, but interpreting the regulations in a way that's innovative and flexible to take into account the changes the technology is causing in the very place that it's being provided," Allison said at the event.
But even the threat of new regulations has some companies concerned. In its F-1 filing, EHang said it should be able to operate under existing FAA rules, and any new ones could affect its ability to roll out new products given what would be an "uncertain or lengthy approval process."
"We are unable to estimate the average length of time required to obtain the applicable regulatory approvals due to the nascent nature of AAV-related regulations and the lack of relevant precedents," the company continued. It also warned its "ability to manufacture, market, sell or operate our AAVs or to advertise or deliver air mobility solutions in general may be limited or otherwise affected" by new regulations.
Chuck Harrington, CEO of infrastructure company Parsons Corp., said during an on-stage interview at CoMotion LA that large cities may even want to go in their own direction. "What has to come out is, in essence, a little FAA in almost every city to manage their airspace," Harrington said.
Rickert said the biggest question for the industry and regulators will be when the flying taxis go pilotless, something that Uber hints is in its future.
"Just like with an autonomous vehicle, how does the industry handle it when there is not a driver or pilot, that will be the biggest challenge," he said. "How do you regulate it, who's responsible when [something] happens. I think there are ideas of how it'll work, but that will be the biggest change. And we have to start thinking about it now, because eventually they will be there, but that timeline is not next year. It's five or 10 years out."