It may not exactly be Bruce Willis whizzing around over the city streets in The Fifth Element, but the coming of air taxis is indeed on the horizon. A growing number of manufacturers are perfecting and testing their designs for air taxis today, and cities and municipalities around the world are beginning to prepare a life with these potentially life-changing vehicles.
They’re faster than cars, more exclusive than trains and buses, and quieter than today’s helicopters. The latest innovation in electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (eVTOLs) is bringing excitement to a dream that has been on many people’s minds for years. The batteries in today’s flying vehicles can last for 80 kilometers of flight. They can reduce a trip from downtown Manhattan to JFK airport from 45 to just five minutes. And they’ve gotten landing noise down to levels equivalent with ordinary traffic noise, about 70 decibels.
Porsche Consulting estimates the market for urban air taxis could rise from $4 billion in 2030 to $21 billion annually by 2035 (although they concede the economics of the market will be challenging and face a great degree of uncertainty along the way).
Auto and Aircraft Companies Are Leading Development
The burgeoning air taxi market is being led by companies and partnerships that span automakers, aerospace and ride-sharing companies, among others. Some of the most visible players in the market:
- Airbus recently showed off an advance view of a four-seat air taxi that is planning its first prototype flights in 2023.
- German developer Volocopter is planning to trial its two-seater in time to offer air taxi service at the Paris Summer Olympics in 2024.
- Toyota is investing $394 million into Silicon Valley-based Joby Aviation, which is developing a piloted all-electric air taxi to be launched by 2023.
- CalTech is working on smart mobility vehicles that integrate with the existing landscape: the complex 3D world that includes urban canyons, congested road networks, and crowded airspace for drones and airplanes.
- Hyundai from South Korea is partnering with Uber, showing off a flying taxi recently at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It will support Uber Elevate’s aerial ride-hailing service, carrying four passengers up to 60 miles in a single trip.
How Air Taxis Could Change Transportation
The market for delivery drones is already growing rapidly, and that is helping to drive innovation in the air taxi space. The next reasonable step in drone transportation is actually adding passengers to the equation. Air taxis would offer tremendous energy and cost savings over competing transportation options. A recent study by University of Michigan estimates that an eVTOL with three passengers would lower emissions 52 percent versus a gas-powered car, and six percent lower than an electric car.
There’s no question that air taxis are certainly fast. One of the biggest advantages to air mobility travel would be saving time. A trip from Paris to its airport, for example, would be two to four times faster than the same trip by car during rush hour. Medical transportation in Berlin, as another example, could be completed 73 percent faster than by ambulance. Air taxis would also help relieve traffic congestion and lower daily commute times for people in crowded locations.
Potential Risks of Air Taxi Services
Unfortunately, it’s not all green fields for the air taxi future. Many concerns cited by experts and the literature of the air taxi developers themselves include:
- Noise Pollution: As light as the noise is reported to be, large numbers of air taxis would still generate a significant amount of noise at takeoff, during flight, and upon landing.
- Safety: Public acceptance would hinge heavily on the safety of such trips in the air, particularly in the early stages of rollout. If a flying taxi were to fall in an uncontrolled way, it could amount to a descent with as much aerodynamic finesse as a rock, posing danger to those on board and on the ground.
- Privacy: Much like drones, there are concerns about vehicles flying above or close to residences and businesses.
- Visual Pollution: The mere sight of swarms of air taxis could also turn the public off, seen as a nuisance and especially jarring in the early years of acceptance.
- Environmental Impact: While eVTOLs offer lower emissions by their very nature, the electricity still has to be generated, and vehicle components still must be manufactured, assembled, and disposed of.
- Affordability: There may come a time when air taxi service will be affordable for everyone, but initially there is concern that it will only be available to more affluent segments of society, and that could impact acceptance.
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Conclusion: Get Ready for a Wild Ride Ahead
While the air taxi market certainly has its challenges ahead, there is still plenty of excitement to go around. The market is sure to mature over the next 10 years or so, then eventually boom when all the pieces come together. The companies that build and fly eVTOLs in the future will need an army of software developers and AI engineers to make it all happen, leaving ample opportunity for ambitious tech professionals to rethink their skills and how they might fit into this exciting new market.