Flying Cars Surge Forward
After decades of failed projects, a new class of vehicles is finally emerging that could transform the way people and cargo are moved within and between cities.
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Ever since, automobiles and aviation emerged at the dawn of the 20th century, enthusiasts have dreamed of safe, affordable “flying cars” which could reduce trips that take hours on the ground to minutes in the air, thereby improving productivity and reducing congestion. In those early days, aircraft pioneer Glenn Curtis and automobile magnate Henry Ford both put forward prototypes of flying cars, but neither the technology nor the consumers were ready for this solution.
Since then, The Jetsons introduced the flying car idea to impressionable young Baby Boomers and inventor Paul Moller built several liquid-fueled prototypes of his so-called SkyCar between 1963 and 2000. Meanwhile, the Trends Editors tracked the convergence of avionics, propulsion, regulations and public perceptions that would be required to create an industry eco-system for what we called the “Personal Aviation Vehicle” (or PAV).
But, despite incremental advances on key components of the system, overall progress seemed glacial and it was easy to dismiss this nascent industry as nothing but “a sci-fi fantasy.”
Then, that all began to change when a NASA engineer named Mark Moore published a landmark whitepaper just four years ago. That “intellectual spark” triggered an explosive chain reaction of innovation that now seems poised to transform the way we commute for the first time since the Interstate Highway boom of the 1950s.
Suddenly, after decades of failed projects and false starts, a new class of vehicles and supporting infrastructure is finally emerging that could turn these dreams into reality by transforming the way people and cargo are moved within and between cities. These aircraft are known as Electric (or hybrid-electric) Vertical Take-Off and Landing vehicles (or eVTOLs). Unlike other modes of transportation, they don’t require roads, waterways, rails, bridges, tunnels, runways, or even liquid fuel. And unlike helicopters, they are designed to be low-cost, quiet, simple-to-operate, nearly crash-proof and relatively low-maintenance.
Nowhere was the accelerating progress on clearer display than at the Uber Elevate 2019 conference held June 11th and12th in Washington, DC. For those not fortunate enough to attend in-person, the conference was live-streamed and archived on YouTube. (Follow these links to experience all 19 hours from: June 11 and June 12.) Participants included Airbus, Embraer, Boeing, Bell, AT&T and a wide range of well-funded new ventures from around the world.
Another recent milestone was the roll-out of Transport Up, a news web site dedicated to the eVTOL industry. As of this writing, TransportUP's Comprehensive Market Survey included 92 eVTOL aircraft at various stages of development, divided into 4 categories:
Beyond the latest news about each aircraft development effort, TransportUp features stories about advances in the batteries, infrastructure and regulations that will be necessary for the eVTOL industry to become commercially successful.
- The nineteen eVTOLs on TransportUP’s Watch List are judged to be the most commercially promising eVTOL aircraft efforts.
- The forty-five Winged eVTOLs that did not make the Watch List all take-off like helicopters and fly horizontally like airplanes, saving energy by using wings during horizontal flight.
- The sixteen Wingless eVTOLs that did not make the Watch List are essentially 2-to-5-passenger versions of today’s recreational and delivery drones. And,
- The twelve so-called Hover Bikes are single-passenger eVTOLs, which can be thought of as “flying motorcycles.”
The sudden mainstreaming of this industry is also reflected in increased press coverage, as well as serious attention from venture capitalists, academia and top-tier consultants. For instance, tte Consulting recently published a five-part series on this evolving industry and its implications. Notably, the Deloitte research identified six challenges and/or barriers that need to be overcome before the wholesale adoption of eVTOL aircraft becomes practical. These include regulations, technology maturity, infrastructure, air traffic management, safety, and psychological barriers.
Because of the need to quickly achieve economies of scale and standardization, the most promising commercialization efforts have focused on a high-utilization, ridesharing business model aimed at urban areas with long commute times and high traffic volumes; that business model is known as “Mobility As A Service” (or MAAS.)
At least two separate efforts are underway to deploy MAAS. The first is Uber Elevate, based on Uber’s proven automotive ridesharing platform. The other is Lilium a well-funded German start-up.
Where do things stand? Despite the many evolving challenges and unknowns:
- Conceptually, Uber’s effort resembles the original Microsoft “open platform” approach which harnessed the expertise of Intel, IBM and others to jump-start the PC revolution; here Uber provides the systems infrastructure, customer interface, and leadership on standards, batteries and regulatory issues; meanwhile its partners provide aircraft, vertiports, and networks that fit into the Uber Elevate framework.
- Lilium’s eco-system model more closely resembles the “closed-platform” strategy of Apple’s Macintosh, in which everything from aircraft to vertiports is run by the company, while it works with a few trusted suppliers.
As Deloitte put it, “there has been rapid progress in the last two years, with many stakeholders believing: ‘If you build it, they will come’.”
- eVTOL manufacturers have begun testing vehicles;
- ecosystem participants including governments are collaborating on a robust regulatory framework; and
- key underlying technologies are advancing swiftly.
Notably, overcoming psychological barriers, will prove crucial in shaping the eVTOL industry, as consumers are at the core of the elevated-mobility ecosystem. And, given the limited exposure this industry has received so far, it is not surprising that consumers are ambivalent.
Deloitte questioned a global group of 10,000 consumers about their perceptions of fully autonomous eVTOL aircraft with respect to safety and perceived utility. Nearly half of the respondents viewed “autonomous aerial passenger vehicles” as a potentially viable solution to roadway congestion.
However, 80 percent of the total either believes that these vehicles “will not be safe” or are currently uncertain that they will be safe. As Deloitte observed, “eVTOL aircraft will become part of the new mobility ecosystem only when creators and operators convince skeptical consumers that airborne vehicles are both useful and safe.” Shaping consumer attitudes will be the joint responsibility of regulators, creators, and operators of this new breed of aircraft.
Turning to technology maturity, several complex issues still need to be addressed before eVTOL air taxis and cargo transports take to the skies. These persistent challenges are primarily related to propulsion, situational-awareness systems, advanced collision-avoidance systemes, and efficient energy management systems. Deloitte’s research suggests that the emerging eVTOL industry faces five major technological barriers which will likely require the kind of group effort being coordinated by Uber.
Consider the five top technology issue identified by Deloitte.
Whether we are talking about technology, infrastructure, air traffic management, safety, or psychological challenges, none of these barriers to Urban Air Mobility are easy to resolve, but none is insurmountable either. The challenge is to develop the solutions in parallel so they can be deployed together as a comprehensive system.
Given this trend, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration.
- Efficient energy management. Efficient energy management (including battery capacity, speed of recharging, and cost per kilowatt-hour) remains a limiting factor and is proving to be a difficult challenge to resolve. The energy-density (kwh/kg) of today’s proven batteries is simply inadequate for long-range commutes, while charging rates are too slow to support high-frequency ridesharing operations. Moreover, the cost per kilowatt-hour has stayed stubbornly high, delaying plans to make eVTOL aircraft economically viable. And this means electrical power is still the primary constraint in the current tug-of-war between payload capacity and range. Notably, hybrid-electric propulsion technology offers an interim solution . Other solutions include fuel cells and quick-swap battery packs.
- Robust situational awareness systems. For both efficiency and safety, autonomous eVTOLs should be able to perceive thier surround¬ings, navigate using pre-ex¬isting maps, and track both static and mobile objects. This requires advanced ca¬pabilities in cognitive sys¬tems and AI. Specifics in¬clude deep learning neural networks able to identify ob¬jects such as buildings, pow¬er lines, and telephone tow¬ers in addition to charting an optimal flight path while airborne. Advanced AI capa¬bilities can also help eVTOLs identify riders and—even more important—designat¬ed landing sites. These ad¬vanced sensing capabilities are required to empower eVTOLs to autonomously operate in safe and reliable ways. Specifically, for effective track¬ing, aircraft would need micro and millimeter wave radar sensors and advanced technologies such as LiDAR and ultrasonic sensors.
- Advanced detection and collision avoidance systems. Aircraft must be able to communicate with existing systems such as ADS –B which shows the locations of all nearby aircraft, currently aloft. But to make on-the-fly decisions and ensure passenger and cargo safety, autonomous eVTOL aircraft would need to be able to see even farther ahead. Enhanced detect-and-avoid technology that uses micro or millimeter wave technology is needed to (a) accurately identify and measure objects over longer distances, especially in difficult terrain and unsafe operating environments and (b) assist in real-time decision-making to enable safe navigation during bad weather conditions.
- Robust air traffic management system. The new air traffic management system will integrate airspace allocation, guidance for severe weather avoidance, congestion management, sequencing, spacing, contingency management, route planning and re-routing. In addition to supporting passenger eVTOLS, this system will also support delivery drones. And,
- Noise control. Reducing the vehicles ’ noise profile is a priority the industry is addressing now. For example, the German Volocopter eVTOL is only one-third as loud as a light helicopter. Similarly, both the Cartercopter technology used by Uber-partner Jaunt and the massively parallel design of the Lillium Jet, make them at least 4 times quieter that helicopters.
First, parallel development of all components of “Mobility As A Service” will enable the industry to achieve initial commercialization by 2025. In July, Uber launched ridesharing service using helicopters between Manhattan and JFK Airport. Boeing, Lillium, Airbus, and China’s eHang all have flying prototypes. And full-scale internal combustion versions of Jaunt’s eVTOL vehicle have been flying at speeds up to 180 MPH since 2005. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (or EASA) recently released preliminary guidance to help eVTOL companies achieve certification in Europe, while key local and Federal Government representatives described American regulatory progress during Uber Elevate 2019. Uber has also announced plans to test Uber Elevate in Los Angeles, Dallas and Melbourne (Australia), enabling planning for vertiport and related infrastructure. —The parallel multifaceted development of regulations, systems, vehicles, and business models will ensure technical viability and create consumer acceptance ahead of testing in 2023. This will be followed by a mass roll-out in the 2025-to-2030 timeframe.
Second, for much of the 2020s eVTOLS will have human pilots. This will not only be a career opportunity for many people, but it will eliminate anxiety related to fully autonomous systems and expedite certification. In all but the rarest of situations, these pilots will simply monitor conditions and step-in should a problem arise. And
Third, the 2024 Olympics in Paris will be an important showcase for eVTOLs. The Airport authority and the regional transportation authority in Paris have teamed up with Airbus to provide visitors to the 2024 Paris Olympics with VTOL taxi service straight from the airport to tournament sites. Currently, to get to the city center, visitors arriving at Charles de Gaulle International Airport have to take a costly taxi, a 35-minute train, or a bus that could take up to 90 minutes. A new express train designed to cut congestion and travel time between the airport and the city center has been delayed until after the Games take place. To minimize initial infrastructural development and financial burden, an existing helicopter corridor will be used to test the transportation system. The CityAirbus is one of the prototypes for the Paris 2024 Olympics. It has a cruising speed of speed of 120 km/h while flying autonomous on fixed routes. It will be initially operated by a pilot. While being a useful “proof of concept,” its goal of dispatching one vehicle every six minutes from Charles de Gaulle International Airport will not meaningfully impact traffic for the Olympics.
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