Where’s My Flying Car? The Lowdown on Personal Flight
AeroMobil’s flying car unveiled at the European Council building on July 7 (Photographer: Tashana Batista/The European Union)

Where’s My Flying Car? The Lowdown on Personal Flight

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(Bloomberg) -- From “Brave New World” to “Blade Runner,” the dream of flying above traffic jams in personal aircraft has a rich history. Now that autonomous vehicles are being tested, it’s natural to ask: Are flying cars next? Jetsons-style family flight is probably decades away, but air taxis could be in wide use by 2030.

1. What are air taxis?

Essentially, take a hobbyists’ drone and enlarge it to hold half a dozen people. Now under development, they take off and land vertically like helicopters but unlike those vehicles, they have several motors, each with a propeller, powered by electricity instead of a single internal combustion engine that turns a large rotor. Called eVTOLs for electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, some have propellers that tilt to provide forward thrust, boosting speed and efficiency. They’re being designed to be lighter, quieter, more environmentally friendly and -- crucially -- less expensive to operate than choppers. A 40-minute helicopter trip from New York City to the Hamptons beaches runs about $600. An air-taxi ride would have to be much cheaper to gain traction.

2. Why not flying cars?

Although the idea of driving out of your garage and down the street before taking off for a quick flight to work is enticing, the hurdles are high. For one, it’s complicated to make a vehicle that can travel on roads and in the sky. Beyond that, airspace would quickly get crowded and dangerous if just about anyone could become a pilot. Self-piloting aircraft may one day become a reality, but not anytime soon.

3. How would air taxis be used?

At the outset, they’re most likely to be deployed on a schedule between set points -- from an airport to downtown, for example -- than on demand like a typical taxi. In that way, the service would be more like air transit than air taxis. Each vehicle would carry a handful of passengers and a pilot. As technology, regulation and popular acceptance advance, eVTOLs could be operated remotely, like drones, though that could be years away. Going pilotless would help reduce costs. On-demand service will take longer to be financially viable: There would be a need for more takeoff and landing areas and fewer passengers per customized flight.

Where’s My Flying Car? The Lowdown on Personal Flight

4. Who’s developing the technology?

More than 70 companies have projects in development. They include planemakers Airbus SE, Boeing Co. and Embraer SA; Textron Inc.’s Bell helicopter unit; Uber Technologies Inc., which envisions setting up so-called vertiports on office buildings; and dozens of startups. Airbus flew a full-scale version of its eVTOL in 2018 for the first time, and Boeing’s prototype made its maiden flight in January. Smaller companies that are developing aircraft include German startup Lilium, which has flown a small electric-powered jet that takes off vertically and then flies like an airplane.

5. What are the technical hurdles?

The biggest is that the aircraft need electrical power to save weight, avoid noise and keep costs down. But today’s batteries are large, heavy and don’t provide juice for long. The good news is that battery technology is improving rapidly, thanks in part to the development of electric cars.

6. Are there regulatory obstacles?

Access to airspace is closely regulated worldwide, especially in densely populated areas where these services would be most useful and cost-effective. The European Aviation Safety Agency in July released standards for small eVTOLs, creating a framework for future certification. In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration can take years to certify a new helicopter for flight and a new generation of aircraft such as eVTOLs could take even longer. Small drones are subject to a slew of restrictions; regulators will be even more cautious about pilotless flights with people on board.

7. Will air taxis be safe?

The industry’s level of safety will depend on the degree of traffic and the regulations under which air taxis operate. That said, traveling by air today is relatively safe, horrific plane crashes notwithstanding. One factor that keeps accidents down is the fact that flights are subject to cancellation for bad weather. Air-taxi passengers will need backup plans for when the climate doesn’t cooperate.

8. What’s the timeline?

Japan’s government in mid-2018 unveiled a program to collaborate with companies on developing a plan to deploy and regulate flying cars across the country, with test flights as soon as this year. Honeywell International Inc., which makes cockpit controls and helicopter engines, predicts air taxis could begin offering limited service in large cities as soon as 2023. Uber Elevate hopes to do just that, connecting Dallas and Los Angeles to their suburbs.

9. What will it cost?

Crown Consulting and McKinsey estimate that aircraft with on-board pilots flying scheduled routes within metropolitan areas could be profitable by 2028 charging roughly $50 a trip. Remote pilots -- cheaper than on-board ones and freeing up paid seats -- will likely operate eVTOLs in the next 15 to 20 years, according to the Aerospace Industries Association. Autonomous aircraft would cut costs further. Morgan Stanley Research projects they could become common as soon as 2040. In the meantime, the demand for aircraft that soar above highways could be diminished by the arrival of driverless cars, which are expected to reduce traffic and can take passengers door-to-door.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg looks at six flying taxis in development.
  • A related QuickTake on electric airplanes.
  • A study of the so-called Urban Air Mobility market led by Crown Consulting.
  • The Aerospace Industries Association’s vision for 2050.
  • Consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton examines air-taxi viability.
  • Uber Technologies markets urban mobility.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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