The future of flying taxis

Once thought possible only in movies, air taxis are flying to Los Angeles and are expected to take off throughout the world, but turbulence lies ahead. —

Imagine avoiding that soul-crushing, hourlong slog – say from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles in the United States on a Tuesday morning.

Instead, you hail a high-tech cab that will hop over the gridlock and get you there in nine minutes.

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This is Adam Goldstein’s pitch to Angelenos run ragged by traffic: air taxis.

“These vehicles just unlock something that can completely change the way we live, the way we work,” said Goldstein, the 43-year-old chief executive of Archer Aviation in Palo Alto.

The promise of flying cars – for generations a Hollywood staple of a space-age future, from The Jetsons to Blade Runner – is finally becoming a reality, so much so that a Swedish company is already selling a single-passenger vehicle called Jetson 1.

ALSO READ: Europe regulator sees first flying taxis in 2024 or 2025

Los Angeles transportation officials are preparing for this new era and expect drone-like electric air taxis to be operational by the time the 2028 Summer Olympics roll around, if not far sooner.

Companies are eyeing Los Angeles’ vast inventory of parking lots and high-rise roofs for so-called vertiports as a gateway for the technology to take off internationally.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has embraced the concept, and in 2019 he helped launch the non-profit Urban Movements Lab to accelerate new mobility technologies.

It has been working with Archer, Hyundai and other groups to help shape city regulations around future airspace.

The city Department of Transportation released a report last year looking at the myriad potential regulations the flying taxis could face relating to noise levels, permits and how the overhead flights could affect the communities below.

That followed a 2020 report with the World Economic Forum, ‘Principles Of The Urban Sky’, outlining seven principles that should guide policy making, including noise, equity of access and connection to other transportation modes.

The efforts were a step in figuring out how to anticipate and regulate a technology that even many of its creators have not flown.

In Long Beach, city officials are working with Wisk Aero, a Mountain View company, to look at how the city could integrate the technology and create economic benefits for the region. — Wisk AeroIn Long Beach, city officials are working with Wisk Aero, a Mountain View company, to look at how the city could integrate the technology and create economic benefits for the region. — Wisk Aero

There are concerns about safety, quality of life and affordability.

While a single air taxi may be relatively quiet, what happens when there is a constant stream of them coming in and out of a landing spot?

Should there be night-time restrictions on flights? Will this just be a means for the ultra-wealthy to buzz over poor neighbourhoods to Dodger Stadium or Arena?

In Long Beach, city officials are working with Wisk Aero, a Mountain View company, to look at how the city could integrate the technology and create economic benefits for the region.

“With its rich aerospace past, current resurgence via Space Beach and its central position in the LA Metro area, Long Beach is an ideal city for all-electric, autonomous urban flight opportunities,” Wisk CEO Gary Gysin said in a statement in February.

Back to the future

Over the next two decades, entrepreneurs like Goldstein envision freeways in the sky, as air taxis follow regulated routes between popular destinations.

“You can imagine a route like from the LAX airport to Pasadena or downtown to Santa Monica,” Goldstein said.

“Those will be routes where you can imagine invisible tubes in the air.”

The publicly traded Archer has said it aims to have commercial operations in Los Angeles by 2024. — ArcherThe publicly traded Archer has said it aims to have commercial operations in Los Angeles by 2024. — Archer

Goldstein said these vehicles will look like a gondola or ski lift where vehicles will be trailing each other on routes that take people 60 to 90 minutes on the ground and can be moved into the air and flown in a matter of five to 10 minutes.

He expects a typical ride from downtown to Santa Monica to cost about US$50 (RM220), akin to an Uber ride.

His Silicon Valley startup is one of hundreds of companies competing to build a new American transportation empire. While many detractors doubt that such travel will soon be viable, affordable or safe, the industry is working with cities to make the technology a reality in the next five years.

These drone-like electric planes are being tested across California by heavily funded tech companies in and around Silicon Valley, including Archer, Santa Cruz-based Joby Aviation and Mountain View-based Wisk Aero.

All three are looking to Los Angeles as a launchpad.

The publicly traded Archer has said it aims to have commercial operations in Los Angeles by 2024.

“The industry is going to launch with a crawl, walk, run approach where there will be certain routes that will become popular,” said Goldstein.

“We’ll expand to multiple routes, and then into the 2030s you’ll start to see a lot more vehicles up in the air.”

The companies are selling the idea of a quieter, cheaper alternative to helicopters to get urbanites out of traffic. Archer and Joby initially planned to launch with pilots, while Wisk is pitching an autonomous air taxi.

Archer is testing an aircraft with a 40ft (12.2m) wingspan and 12 rotors. Its vehicles will zip through the air at 150mph (241kph).

One aircraft – costing US$2mil (RM8.8mil) – can do about 25 trips a day, averaging about 25 miles (40km) a trip.

Goldstein plans to not only run an air taxi service but sell the planes. The company has secured an agreement with United Airlines for the conditional purchase of up to US$1bil (RM4.4bil) worth of the aircraft.

That deal helped the electric aircraft startup go public in a deal valued at US$3.8bil (RM16.7bil).

Boeing invested RM1.88bil into Wisk, an American startup developing flying taxis, and competitor of Germany-based Volocopter 2X’s air taxi seen here. — AFPBoeing invested RM1.88bil into Wisk, an American startup developing flying taxis, and competitor of Germany-based Volocopter 2X’s air taxi seen here. — AFP

Last year, investors poured nearly US$1bil into testing electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOL) companies globally, according to Pitchbook, which tracks private investment.

Certification challenges

In Paris, officials announced last year that they would begin testing eVTOL for potential use along two routes that could ferry in Olympic spectators in 2024.

But though air taxis might begin limited operations soon, the sky freeways in Los Angeles that Goldstein envisions might be longer in coming, if they ever do.

Federal Aviation Administration officials have signalled that when these aircraft are certified, they can operate in much the same way that general aviation does, out of airports. That might happen in the next two years.

“We’re looking at advanced air mobility, and expecting to certify the first of those flying taxis around the 2024 timeframe,” then-FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told an aeronautic group last November.There are multiple certifications that can take years for companies to obtain.

The federal agency must approve the design, safety, manufacturing and operation of these aircraft. None of the air taxis have completed any of this.

“There’s an old kind of saying in aerospace that to certify an aeroplane requires like a stack of paperwork the same weight as the aeroplane,” said Eric Allison, product manager at Joby.

The publicly traded company received a key certification to run commercial, on-demand operations, but it still requires other approvals for design and production.

When Joby acquired Uber Elevate, Uber’s would-be air service, Joby gained access to reams of data on where people were driving daily.

Allison said it’s using that to help identify potential take-off and landing locations, as well as where the service will be launched.

It also struck a deal with a private company to find take-off and landing sites, initially in Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Francisco.

“We’re in conversations with lots of different people, as you might imagine,” Allison said.

“Basically any place that has problems with congestion. I think it has a really strong possibility or probability of benefiting from this technology.”

Frustrated commuters would be the lifeblood of this industry. And there’s no shortage of them in Los Angeles.

“LA is kind of that perfect location,” said Dan Dalton, an executive at competitor Wisk Aero.

“It’s got a huge amount of sprawl. It’s got a huge amount of traffic and has people who are interested in getting out of the traffic but still enjoy the sprawl.”

Wisk is backed by Boeing, which invested US$450mil (RM1.98bil) and wants to take things a step further by going pilot-less, although it has yet to target a date or city for launch.

It has been working for a decade on expanding the use of various forms of aircraft.

“It’s not just air taxis,” he said.

“Just as many companies are also looking at cargo. There are a ton of folks that are trying to move things from Santa Monica out to Van Nuys and then back down to Long Beach and doing that all day long.

“And in reality, at least from our perspective, that’s something that could be very easily done by aircraft that don’t necessarily need pilots.”

Parking is a priority

If the industry clears the many federal regulatory hurdles, cities must manage where these aircraft can land, and implement noise controls and safety regulations.

“It’s a very promising technology, but there’s just a number of things we need to deal with as we move along: safety and certification, noise, environmental impact, traffic management,” said Juan Alonso, an expert on eVTOL and professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University’s School of Engineering.

Prof Alonso expects limited use of these aircraft over the next several years, including medical ambulances and cargo.

He anticipates limited passenger service. But as time goes on, he thinks the cost will fall as air taxis become more widespread.

Brazil’s largest airline is planning to purchase and operate 250 electric flying taxis, similar to Airbus’s City Airbus protoype pictured here. — AFPBrazil’s largest airline is planning to purchase and operate 250 electric flying taxis, similar to Airbus’s City Airbus protoype pictured here. — AFP

Seleta Reynolds, LA Department of Transportation general manager, is sceptical about freeways in the air.

“When it comes to passenger transport, I am not yet fully convinced that the benefits outweigh the impact,” said Reynolds, who sits on an advisory committee helping to shape the FAA’s policies on air taxis.

Still, she said she’s excited about some of the technology’s potential but wants to ensure it wouldn’t exacerbate inequities by creating a traffic corridor over underserved communities already divided by land-based freeways.

“My biggest worry is that it will have a lot of impact on communities that are already impacted by the transportation system in order to benefit folks who already have a lot of choices for how they get around,” she said.

Reynolds said the idea raises fundamental questions about the space above cities.

“Do we have a right or an expectation to be able to look up at an uncrowded sky, at a clear sky?

“Does that public space have a value in tangible terms of what you see in the sky? I think it’s a really important question for this industry to think about. And I don’t hear a lot of that discussion yet,” she said.

A potentially vast expansion of aircraft over an urban area raises obvious questions about the new technology’s safety.

Goldstein and others say their taxis have several propellers and battery engines, giving them a redundancy that makes them nearly fail-safe compared to helicopters. But in February, Joby’s remotely piloted prototype aircraft was “involved in an accident” during a flight test at its base in California. No one was riding in it.

The competition to be first in the air is fierce. Archer is embroiled in a legal fight with Wisk, which has accused it of taking trade secrets.

The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial next year.

All of those problems seemed far from Goldstein’s mind when he unveiled his prototype at Hawthorne Airport last year.

In a hangar, at the mid-century airfield built for aviation pioneer Jack Northrop seven decades ago, Goldstein and his co-founder, Brett Adcock, unveiled their version of the future: a sleek two-seat plane with gull-wing doors and no flight controls called the Maker.

The flashy demo, replete with a drum-playing introduction and a simulated flight over beaches and lakes, felt part Ted Talk, part Silicon Valley pitch meeting.

“We are now on the cusp of a new golden age of aviation, something that we haven’t seen in 100 years,” Goldstein told the crowd. On the stage, he slid into the Maker next to Adcock.

When the company’s first air taxis take to the sky, they will have a pilot, but the autonomous Maker is where the company wants to go.

Behind him, a screen simulated what a flight would look like. The two took off from a virtual launchpad over California landscapes of snow-capped mountains and pristine deserts.

“Just looking out the window and the perspective you get as you fly over everything,” he said. “It makes travelling fun.” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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