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Flying Cars Are Coming To A City Near You

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Urban Aerial Mobility – or ‘flying cars’ – could present a more flexible way for cities to invest in future infrastructure.
Cities can help shape how this technology will be implemented and how it will impact their communities.

From ride-sharing to the COVID-19 lockdowns, cities have weathered massive changes in the past few years. These changes have altered how people got around, how they worked, and what fuelled their economies. A surprising new disruption is on its way – but this time cities have time to prepare and shape the solution that works best for their communities.

This next disruption goes by many names, but whether you call it Urban Aerial Mobility (UAM), Helicopter 2.0 or even ‘flying cars,’ this new approach to vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) offers an infrastructure (launch pads, etc.) that’s less expensive to build than rail and a technology that’s safer and more accessible than traditional helicopters. UAM, properly implemented, could connect existing transit nodes and even make it easier for cities to connect workers to transit needs.

Flying cars, once seen as part of some space age future, are in reach. Cautious predictions from technology companies, as well as regulatory agencies, say these solutions could be in place in as soon as 5 to 10 years. But to ensure the public trusts this new option, and that it truly works for people’s needs, cities must start planning now to shape standards and expectations.

To understand what’s needed, Agenda spoke with Harrison Wolf, the World Economic Forum’s Lead for Aerospace and Drones. Wolf is helping to drive the launch of a special set of principles for the urban sky to guide cities around the world. Los Angeles is set to implement these principles, and collaborations with other cities will follow. We talked to Wolf about why cities need to shape this new disruption and what’s key to keep in mind.

The following interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Agenda: Define Urban Aerial Mobility and how it could reshape cities?
Wolf
: It’s a new way of moving passengers and cargo through the sky. While we’ve had helicopters for a very long time, they’ve been just for a very small margin of society – mostly the elite. Helicopters have shown themselves to be less safe, perhaps, than other modes of aviation or transportation. It’s really looking at a more sustainable combustion approach to using batteries in hybrid engines. This safer option replaces helicopters’ single point of failure rotor with a distributed electrical system to provide redundancy from the sky if something fails. So, by combining safer, more secure, more sustainable and more efficient flight, the hope is that more people can fly through the sky and can move more quickly out of gridlock and across cities.

Agenda: How is this a more sustainable option than traditional helicopter engines that readers might be familiar with?
Wolf: 
It’s the difference between a combustion engine in a traditional car and [what you’d find in] a Prius. You reduce the carbon footprint dramatically as you introduce more hybridized, more fully electric vertical take off. Your range is a little bit diminished in the short term, but as these technologies mature and as battery density increases, you’ll have a [technology that’s] much cleaner, much more efficient, and much less prone to failure, which can in turn reduce the costs of maintenance and down-time, and thus, overall costs.

Agenda: What’s the opportunity here for transit?
Wolf:
 Uber Elevate is one company that’s looking at the economics behind these transportation modalities. What they say is that within a period of three to five years, it may be possible to get to a price comparison with an Uber Black. So, in these very dense urban environments where an Uber would maybe take an hour to two hours, you can fly fifteen to twenty minutes and pay the same cost. All of a sudden that becomes very affordable for at least the business traveler.

I think that in the short term, much like how the car was introduced, much like air travel was introduced, it will be something that is for the middle class and business traveller. Over time, as we figure out subsidies, as we figure out how to do cost-sharing, the cost will be driven down to a point where it can become more cost competitive. Scalability will really be the key to success – if you can get to a point where it’s faster to walk to a vertiport and fly than drive (and for a similar cost), the decision will be easy. But that will take many flight options to various points throughout the city.

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