Ignoring the Elephant in the Sky, the Air Taxi
Roopinder Tara posted on May 28, 2020 |
Rethinking urban air mobility post-Kobe and post-COVID-19

One of basketball’s stars fell from the sky on January 26 when Kobe Bryant, an NBA legend, died in a helicopter crash. With him was his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others. It was a tragedy.

At the time of the crash, Kobe was riding in a Sikorsky S-76B, known as a “workhorse” and a “flying Lincoln Town Car,” that bore the “Black Mamba” designation the basketball star had given himself. The aircraft is reputed to have an excellent safety record and is in wide use ferrying executives, VIPs and government officials. An investigation is ongoing, but reports indicate that it was foggy the morning of the flight, and the visibility was so poor that the pilot had to get special clearance to fly in conditions worse than allowed for VFR, or visual flight rules. The helicopter crashed into a hillside.

If the Kobe tragedy was like pushing the mute button on the hype around urban air mobility, COVID-19 was like pushing pause. The pandemic, which started to slow air travel in March, has since turned the hype to a trickle.  With fewer travelers at airports these days, there is also less interest in planning for them in the future.

Might we take this pause to examine our true need for air taxis?

Air taxi promises a 5-minute hop from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to downtown.
Air taxi promises a 5-minute hop from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to downtown.

What Is Urban Air Mobility?

Urban air mobility champions envision a world with fleets of small environmentally friendly aircraft that can swiftly, silently and cheaply connect airports to downtown areas. Technologies are converging to make this happen, they say. Batteries for electric air taxis have been increasing their power density and decreasing charging time, say aircraft manufacturers. Software is more capable of designing lighter aircraft, simulation more accessible to make aircraft more aerodynamic, say CAD and CAE vendors. Air mobility has all the makings of disruptive technology, says the investment community, which is eager to cash in on the “next big thing.” A green light from us, say the environmentalists, who are happy to not be burning fossil fuels (most air taxi designs are electric or hybrid). 

Air taxis will open up a new chapter in aviation, making it more personal and more convenient. Wouldn’t everyone love to get from the airport to downtown in minutes rather than hours?

Using an air taxi would certainly be less expensive that owning your own helicopter. It’s conceivable that a market for air taxis may exist among business executives—those who would ordinarily rent limousines or town cars, who can justify an expense that is 2x to 3x the cost of a limousine with the time they save. Your CEO’s time is too important to waste on a clogged highway. Junior executives without a pass for the corporate helicopter may also be a target market.

Who’s in the Running?

Here’s just a few of the designs vying to fly the first air taxi.The hybrid Terrafugia Transition has folding wings so that it can be driven on standard roads. (Image courtesy of Terrafugia.)

The hybrid Terrafugia Transition has folding wings so that it can be driven on standard roads. (Image courtesy of Terrafugia.)
One company with a strange looking small plane shows how the wings fold up to become a stranger looking car. You can go from LAX to downtown in 5 minutes, point to point, flying over the dreaded US Interstate 110.

In January, the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, perhaps the last big tradeshow before the coronavirus shut them all down, featured full-scale mock-ups of two air taxis. See our report here.One of the over 100 companies Uber is working with is Hyundai, which has resulted in the all-electric S-A1, an 8-rotor design capable of 60-mile trips and able to connect most airports to their city’s downtowns. The design features 4 rotors that remain vertical, but the other 4 can become horizontal. (Image courtesy of Aria Group.)

One of the over 100 companies Uber is working with is Hyundai, which has resulted in the all-electric S-A1, an 8-rotor design capable of 60-mile trips and able to connect most airports to their city’s downtowns. The design features 4 rotors that remain vertical, but the other 4 can become horizontal. (Image courtesy of Aria Group.)
Bell, maker of helicopters, showed its 4 tilt-rotor design. The 7,000 lb, all-electric version is only good for 13 km to 22 km trips. The hybrid would be good for longer trips with a one-way maximum trip of 130 miles. (Image courtesy of Bell.)
Bell, maker of helicopters, showed its 4 tilt-rotor design. The 7,000 lb, all-electric version is only good for 13 km to 22 km trips. The hybrid would be good for longer trips with a one-way maximum trip of 130 miles. (Image courtesy of Bell.)
Jaunt air taxi, also all electric and the result of working with Uber, has one big rotor for vertical flight and 4 propellers for horizontal flight. (Image courtesy of Jaunt Air Mobility.)
Jaunt air taxi, also all electric and the result of working with Uber, has one big rotor for vertical flight and 4 propellers for horizontal flight. (Image courtesy of Jaunt Air Mobility.)
Joby has an all-electric 4-passenger, 6-tilt rotor design that can go over 150 miles on one charge. (Image courtesy of Joby.)
Joby has an all-electric 4-passenger, 6-tilt rotor design that can go over 150 miles on one charge. (Image courtesy of Joby.)

Who’s Investing?

According to Pitchbook’s pre-COVID-19 assessment, the investment in urban air mobility was to hit a crescendo in 2020 but did warn that the nascent industry “still faces regulatory and technological hurdles that will require more time and serious [emphasis ours] capital to resolve.”

  • Joby raised a total of $720 million, most of it from Toyota, more from Intel and JetBlue.
  • Lilium raised more than $340 million, with China's Tencent doubling down on its initial investment in the last round.
  • Volocopter raised nearly $100 million from Daimler and China’s Geely.

“The hype keeps increasing, but we should be afraid of something like the dot-com boom and bust,” warned Vertical Flight Society President Mike Hirschberg back in March 10, 2020, in an issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology. “It was catastrophic and wiped our whole companies.”

Flying taxi was to have landed in Singapore in 2020.
Flying taxi was to have landed in Singapore in 2020.

Of Course, Uber Is Interested

Uber is so interested in air taxis that it has over a hundred companies bidding on designs of air taxis for its Air Elevate program. According to Uber, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency in charge of air safety, has been “amazing” in its “progressive stance to support the development of dedicated sky plane,” as quoted in an Aviation Week and Space Technology article dated March 2019.

Missing in the company’s go-go attitude is any consideration of safety. Uber has been criticized for a less than stellar safety record with its self-driving car program that was shut down in Arizona after one of its vehicles ran down a pedestrian.

The Elephant in the Sky

Ignored by Uber, and all the other air taxi champions, is the fundamental risk of putting heavier than air objects above our heads. Credit engineers and government agencies for making air travel as safe as it is today, but aviation wannabes would do well to remember that this level of safety is the result of decades of effort and an unwavering intolerance for accidents. A commercial jet accident anywhere in the world is a top news story everywhere. Increasing the number of aircraft in the sky—even with the same low rate of accidents as commercial flights—will still increase the total number of accidents.

Proponents of air taxis will point to the inherent safety of smaller, lighter aircraft overhead. One air taxi exhibited at CES 2020 weighed 3200 kg, or 3.5 tons—about the weight of a full-grown elephant. By comparison, a Boeing 767 (the model of planes that were flown into the World Trade Center towers) weigh more than 40 times as much—and carry 20,000 gallons of fuel. A battery-powered air taxi would, of course, carry no volatile jet fuel. However, that risk would be offset by a swarm of air taxis. And unlike commercial aircraft whose routes are over several hundreds of miles of areas with low population density , most of an air taxi’s routes would be over crowded cities.

Investors in the new air mobility may not have completely assessed the public response. A 2017 Pew Charitable Trust survey found that a quarter of the public felt “nervous” and another quarter “angry” or “scared” about drones, which present more of a privacy risk rather than a safety risk. We could find no reliable surveys of the public reception for air taxis.

If any good at all comes from the tragedy of the Kobe crash and the current pandemic, it could be the pause to consider the risk to the public versus the benefit to the few who would gain some advantage from personal on-demand aviation.

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