As we discussed last year in our analysis of the trend Urban Mobility Takes Off, a concept study by NASA has made the case that taking a ride in a driverless vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) air taxi could become as cheap as taking a ride in an Uber car, and take less than one-third of the time.
A team led by Mark Moore of NASA's Langley Research Center focused on the area from Oakland to San Jose. Assuming that each air taxi would be in the air about 30 hours per week, the cost could realistically match an Uber benchmark of $1.50 per mile.
But unlike the sluggish commutes on Silicon Valley's jammed freeways, air taxis would average 34 miles per hour over urban areas-250 percent faster than the same distance traveled by car. For longer trips, air taxis could reach speeds of 120 to 200 miles per hour. Of course, there would need to be a takeoff and landing infrastructure to support those flights.
The NASA study suggests putting helipads on the roofs of urban buildings, in the middle of highway cloverleafs, or even on floating barges. Researchers estimate that there's room for at least 200 cloverleaf pads in the Silicon Valley region alone.
But now, the concept of travel by air taxi is moving swiftly from idea to implementation. Since our last report, aviation firms have developed three revolutionary new aircraft that are positioned to make NASA's vision a reality.
Let's begin with the Ehang 184, which a Chinese drone-maker called EHang introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2016. Ehang was founded only two years ago and has already attracted roughly $52 million in venture funding.
The 184 gets its name from the idea that it will carry one passenger, using eight propellers and four arms. However, that passenger and his or her luggage cannot exceed 220 pounds.
According to a review of the 184 by Dronethusiast.com, Ehang announced that the 184 will be able to fly for 23 minutes, or about 10 miles, before needing to be recharged for two to four hours.
The 184 will only be flown by the drone's software, eliminating the human pilot completely. The passenger will enter the destination into a smartphone app and the software will handle the navigation. Should any problem occur mid-flight, the company claims that Ehang employees in command centers will guide the 184 to a landing at the nearest safe location.
The cost for the single-seat drone will be somewhere in the $200,000 to $300,000 range. At that price, individuals may choose to purchase the craft if they have a daily commute that is ten miles or less, but it is hard to imagine a taxi service that would be profitable if it needed two to four hours of recharging between passenger pickups.
However, a test of the concept is coming soon to Las Vegas. Officials from the city are working with the company to gain the necessary FAA clearances to use unmanned passenger drones as shuttles.
According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Tom Wilczek, the defense aerospace industry representative at the governor's economic development office, announced that, "I personally look forward to the day when drone taxis are part of Nevada's transportation system."
Las Vegas seems like a perfect setting for this kind of market test. It's worth noting that the Ehang 184 does not represent a finished mass-market product. However, it represents a smart "test bed" for a new technology and related business models. It is not really fast and it is not really cheap, but it's good enough to get people around and let them experience an autonomous air vehicle piloted by the cloud, rather than a human.
Las Vegas is one of the few places on Earth where it can be offered as a novelty at a premium price, while testing it under high-volume circumstances in a real city. Other likely places are Dubai and Singapore.
The obvious introductory application would be as an airport shuttle. People would check their bags for delivery at the baggage claim area and then board the Ehang 184. It would carry them over the city via some picturesque route to their hotel, giving them a guided tour, enabled by GPS. Alternative trips could include points of interest within the drone's twenty-three-minute flight time.
For this application, interchangeable battery packets make sense; instead of waiting for the battery to recharge, operators who would check-in the drone at the end of each flight could replace the drained batteries for freshly charged ones.
The Ehang 184 is not the only new entry in this race. After Germany approved its permit to fly within its airspace, the e-volo Volocopter VC200 recently completed its first manned flight, with e-volo managing director Alexander Zosel aboard. It seats up to two passengers and flies at about the same speed as the Ehang 184.
According to a report, "The aircraft uses a special flight control system that makes it very easy to fly and, like a normal helicopter, it has vertical takeoff and landing capability. The machine is designed to be flown one-handed and has redundancy allowing it to survive the loss of multiple electric motors without crashing."
Like the Ehang 184, the VC200 is ideal for serving as an airport shuttle. Although it reached a speed of 25 kilometers per hour at low altitude during Zosel's flight, the company plans to test it at 50 kilometers per hour at medium altitude, followed by 100 kilometers per hour at higher altitude.
While both the Ehang and Evolo are very useful as "proof-of-concept designs," they lack the range and speed needed for commutes beyond a confined metro area.
Over the longer term, a passenger drone called TF-X, by Massachusetts-based company Terrafugia, seems likely to meet all the requirements of the NASA study cited last year. It seats four, flies at 200 miles per hour, and uses a hybrid power plant to give it a 500-mile range.
Moreover, the TF-X is roadable. The NASA study assumed the same vehicle would pick you up at the door, drive you to a take-off location, fly you to a landing location near your office, and drive you to the door, in the same vehicle. Only the TF-X could handle this whole job.
The TF-X features fold-out wings with twin electric motors attached to each end. It will reach a cruising speed of 200 miles per hour over a 500-mile range. Passengers will be able to enter a destination before departing and the navigation system will do the rest. The vehicle will be able to recharge its batteries either from its engine or by plugging into electric car charging stations.
It won't arrive soon, however. The company expects that it will take eight to 12 years for the TF-X to reach the market due to regulatory hurdles. Terrafugia is currently testing a one-tenth scale model of the design in a wind tunnel at MIT.
Meanwhile, the French aviation company Airbus is working on a project called Vahana for a single-passenger flying taxi, as well as one called CityAirbus that will transport multiple passengers by air. The CityAirbus VTOL will use electric propulsion and ducted propellers. A pilot will sit at the controls until regulations are changed to allow for fully autonomous passenger flights.
To help pave the way for these vehicles, Airbus plans to launch a drone delivery service on the campus of the National University of Singapore in the middle of 2017. Once it can prove that commercial drones can safely fly packages over an urban area, the company expects that aviation authorities around the world will allow autonomous taxis to fill the skies over cities that are congested with highway traffic. A prototype of the Vahana drone is expected to fly before the end of 2017.
According to Jorg Muller, Senior Manager of Corporate Development at Airbus Group, "The market will develop quickly once we are able to deploy the first vehicles in megacities and demonstrate the benefits of quiet, emission-free air transport at competitive prices." He projects the worldwide demand as equal to "100 times the yearly production of Airbus Helicopters, and that would only require replacing one out of a 100 ground taxis."
The Vahana project for single passengers is being developed by a skunk works group within Airbus called A3. It is collaborating with Uber to provide flying cars that can be booked with a smartphone app as an extension of Uber's ride-hailing platform. According to A3 project executive Rodin Lysoff, "We believe that global demand for this category of aircraft can support fleets of millions of vehicles worldwide."
The CityAirbus concept is also similar to Uber in that passengers will use an app to reserve a seat on a CityAirbus. Then they will go to the closest heliport and get on a flight that will be shared with other passengers. By sharing the ride, passengers will split the costs, so the service will be equivalent to a taxi fare.
Looking ahead, we foresee the following developments emerging from this trend:
First, fuel cells are a likely solution to the problem of the short range of air taxis as designed today.
According to Navigant Research, more than 580,000 cars and buses powered by fuel cells will hit the road within the next eight years. The report points out that fuel cell vehicles can currently be refilled in three to five minutes and can travel up to 300 miles before the next refill. Car manufacturers are working on vehicles that can cover more than 400 miles between refills. Once the same energy technology is applied to autonomous flying taxis, the average range between refills will extend from today's 10 miles to several hundred miles. That improvement will be the tipping point that will make the business model viable.
Second, autonomous drone taxis will disrupt the ride-sharing industry that is now disrupting the traditional taxi business.
As of December 2014, more than 162,000 people were driving for Uber, and the number of drivers is said to double every six months. Most of those drivers won't be needed when driverless taxis, in the sky and on the ground, can provide the same service at lower cost.
Third, marketing strategies will be retooled to target passengers in flying taxis.
Video billboards that face drivers in highway traffic will be tilted upward so they can be read from the sky. Advertising messages will be painted on the rooftops of tall buildings and on parking lots. And within the flying taxis, passengers will be able to opt in to watch commercials during their ride in exchange for a lower fare.