3 executives at top flying-car startups reveal their visions for the future of ‘urban air mobility’
- Executives from leading flying-car designers and operators spoke at a mobility forum in New York City in January.
- While there are readily available flights on helicopters, the world has yet to see an electric aircraft carry passengers.
- Nevertheless, visionaries are looking to a future where dinner 200 miles away is available in 30 minutes at the touch of a button — for the price of an Uber ride.
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If the flying-car revolution is Netflix, we’re still in the DVD days.
That’s according to Rob Wiesenthal, chief executive of the helicopter service Blade, one of a slew of companies working to build electric, flying cars for use on networks like Uber and more. At least, once someone finally proves it’s possible.
“It was a little big clunky, just like helicopters,” he told fellow executives from Joby Aviation, Voom, and Jet Blue Ventures, at an industry event hosted by the company Mozio in January. “But [Netflix] had a terrific brand, great service, great content, a lot of users, and they were just waiting for streaming.”
Once streaming became viable, Netflix was ahead of the curve, leaving many incumbent entertainment shops years behind. Many are only now launching streaming competitors, including Disney, NBC, and ESPN.
“eVTOL is our streaming,” Wiesenthal said, quoting an industry acronym short for “electric vertical takeoff and landing.” Blade, like other companies at the New York City event, are hoping their expertise in digital helicopter bookings will unlock new potential for trips from city centers to airports, weekend getaways, and other locations.
Uber, meanwhile, is working with aircraft designers to implement their hardware on its network much like the way users book taxi rides today. To that end, it’s begun experimenting with helicopters available to any customers in New York City that are headed to JFK Airport, a few-minutes flight away. By 2023, Uber hopes to have commercially operational flying taxis live in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne, Australia — with test flights happening as soon as 2020.
Air travel for everyone — at the touch of a button
In some cases, Uber’s chopper rides have been quoted cheaper than cars because of traffic and surge pricing. But overall, helicopters aren’t for the masses. That’s where Joby Aviation, one of the newest entrants to the “urban air mobility” race, differs.
“We are hoping that this doesn’t become something only for a certain segment of society,” said Greg Bowles, head of government affairs for Joby. “We’re trying to price this accessibility in a way that everyone can use it several times a week.”
The secretive startup Joby moved up its first public reveal in January — including a $100 million funding round from backers including Toyota — to allow Bowles to speak freely about its plans at the event.
“Maybe I want to move distances that today I can’t reasonably move in my car,” he said. “You might say ‘We should have dinner in Baltimore tonight, it’s a 30 minute flight and it’s going to cost us similarly to Uber black, should we go?’ These aren’t choices we have today.”
Clément Monnet, chief executive of Airbus-backed Voom, seconded Joby’s charge that the flying future be accessible to anyone. The helicopter service has been operating in Latin America since 2016, and recently launched short-haul flights from San Francisco.
“You have dozens of companies in the world building eVTOL aircraft, or flying taxis,” he said. “But we realized that there was no reason to wait to provide a service because there are existing machines, existing helicopter operators, and existing infrastructure — helipads.”
A lot more infrastructure is needed
Los Angeles famously required helicopter landing pads on the roof of tall buildings for decades, helping to form its iconic skyline of flat-topped towers. Other cities weren’t as creative back then, and that means companies will have to work with governments and communities to design flight paths, charging stations, and landing ports that aren’t a nuisance.
“There are two sides to noise,” Joby’s Bowles said. “One side of noise is true noise. Is it loud? Does it catch my attention? Does it drive me nuts? That’s the worst case of noise.”
But there’s another side to the noise problem, and it comes back to Joby’s bid for accessibility.
“The second piece of noise we call perceived noise,” Bowles continued.
“Maybe it doesn’t actually bother me, but I see it and I don’t like it so then I say it’s loud. We’ve seen lots of reports over the years when people are upset with aircraft noise in their communities. And almost to a T every time I read these incredibly detailed governmental studies, the people who are filling out these surveys say something remarkable: They say ‘I don’t want this to exist anymore, except I do want the air ambulance and the police to be doing it.'”
And while their visions are likely admirable by most measures, it’s still a waiting game. The panel was quick to say the change will be “evolutionary, not revolutionary,” in the words of Wiesenthal. But “Boeing’s not making anything easier,” he added, referring to the 737 Max crisis that has plagued the planemaker for nearly a year.
“I think on the technology we are very close,” Monnet of Voom said. “There are companies making half-prototypes right now that are actually flying and could complete some of the missions that we do today with helicopters. The regulatory piece is one part of the problem, but it’s also traffic management and how you integrate those aircraft with legacy vehicles.”
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