It’s a great time to be a sci-fi nerd in 2019. Beyond Tesla whips, virtual assistants and the prospect of living on Mars, we’re approaching a future where flying cars are no longer relegated to the books of Philip K. Dick. While German start-up Lilium is working to launch a fully operational air taxi service by 2025, Uber is gearing up to begin flight demonstrations for Uber Air in 2020 and make its aerial ride-sharing service (via air transport vehicles built by Boeing, Embraer and Bell) commercially available by 2023.
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More thrilling is the fact that aircraft firm Volocopter is bringing its first air taxi, the vertiport, to Singapore. Public flight trials over the southern part of the city-state were supposedly planned for 2019, as revealed by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore in April this year. In partnership with Skyports, Volocopter has designed the world’s first full-scale prototype of a vertiport, which will be showcased at the 26th Intelligence Transport Systems (ITS) World Conference this October in Singapore.
Different aircrafts will feature different levels of passenger capacity, but the idea is to develop a fully electric, autonomous, helicopter-like vehicle to chauffeur city dwellers from one place to another in lightning speed. It’s an enticing fantasy that’s meant to eliminate road congestion and make way for a more convenient and efficient way of life. Still, dreams in reality don’t come without a long list of caveats, and the question of whether flying cars are a feasible idea is still up in the air.
Potential Roadblocks for Air Taxis
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The pre-flight procedures that private and commercial pilots go through are lengthy and painstakingly meticulous. They can’t simply roll their aircraft onto the runway without seeking permission first from the air traffic control tower. Hell, they can’t even turn on the engine without getting the green light from the folks upstairs—all for the sake of safety. We might be used to flying across the planet in a matter of hours, but taking flight is still a pretty big deal. And it’s because of these precautions, which are invisible to passengers, that we don’t experience a lot of collisions.
For autonomous air taxis, there won’t be a human pilot communicating with the air traffic control tower. Everything will be done through technology and algorithms. Of course, that’s nothing new. Singapore’s man-less LRT train system has been running for years without major hitches. But don’t forget that these automated land transport systems have physical tracks that they follow, ensuring that the path they tread will always be the same and reducing any risk of accidents. Up in the air, there are no roads. Formulating a fixed path would much more of a challenge.
One has to consider the flight paths of private and commercial planes as well, coming and going throughout the day. We imagine these air chauffeur vehicles might not reach the same altitude as commercial aircrafts, but the risks also depend on the location of the vehicle. Will it be flying close to the international airport, and potentially disturb the flight paths of the larger carriers? What if it encounters law-flouting drone operators whose devices are able to climb to a considerable height? What about existing helicopters that occasionally conduct tours of the city from a bird’s-eye view? The flying cars will have to figure out a middle ground so that there will be as few roadblocks as possible—a complex issue that will no doubt involve a truckload of regulations.
The Purpose of Convenience
Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha
These aerial vehicles might be able to solve the congestion issue in Singapore by opening up the skies for everyday transportation, but is it really more convenient? The ride itself might be swifter than taking a car, but it’s not exactly the most readily available form of transport. You can’t order an air taxi and have it pick you up at your house like a regular cab can—that is, unless you live in a mansion with a built-in helipad.
Chances are, you’ll have to first travel to a designated, open air area—whether it’s a rooftop or a flat, empty field—before you hop onto the drone-helicopter hybrid. It most likely has to be a relatively remote location too, free of human traffic. By the time you get to the pick-up point, you might’ve wasted a solid 30 minutes, the amount of time it takes for a car to bring you to your destination.
The dilemma is further convoluted by the fact that Singapore is already such a dense city. We are but a tiny dot on the world map. How much space will we have to accommodate a reasonable amount of landing pads for these air chauffeur vehicles? To make it a truly convenient service, it needs more than two pick-up locations. It has to be able to service those based in the outskirts of the country, the heartlands on all four corners of Singapore.
Don’t forget about the availability of drop-off locations. These glorified drones need access to strategically located, high-volume addresses, especially in central Singapore, where most people congregate for work. Given our space constraints, it’s hard to see this unfolding the way it should to benefit us. Our guess is that it’ll thrive more as a semi-long-distance transport system, serving those who have to commute from the east to the west, rather than those who need a quick, 14km lift from Ang Mo Kio to Bedok.
In fact, it might not make sense to introduce another method of transportation for the sake of freeing up the roads. Echoing the issues raised in the discussion of Elon Musk’s underground highway, air taxis might not ultimately reduce congestion, but add another “highway”, so to speak, which will make way for more vehicles to clog up our streets. Instead of tackling the root problem—taking people off the road—it is sticking a bandaid over the splinter of overcrowding. If this idea takes off, we could still end up in the same conundrum of a skyrocketing demand, leading to air congestion. That could mean a longer waiting time, if there’s a ceiling to the number of such aircrafts that’s allowed to fly at any one time.
The High Cost of Air Taxis
Where flying cars might triumph over traditional planes and helicopters is that noise pollution will be kept to a minimum. According to Mark Moore, the engineering director of aviation at Uber (and former NASA veteran), using electric motors and plane propellers that spin at a slower rate will bring the noise down to a soft hum, or a higher pitched whir that you won’t be able to distinguish from the sound of regular car traffic. If executed well, he claims an electric flying taxi could be 32 times quieter than a helicopter.
Because the vehicle is electric, it’ll leave a much smaller carbon footprint as well, as opposed to fuel-burning cars and aircrafts. Yet, there’s no confirmation of just how sustainable and eco-friendly these aerial chauffeur services will be. Particularly for noise pollution, a throng of dissenters insists Uber is underestimating the issue, blind to the fact that the machines will have to operate within an even lower decibel range than expected.
Besides environmental costs, the starting price of an air taxi ride will certainly be higher than that of a land taxi. If you’re looking for speed, it’s but a small price to pay. The folks behind Lilium aims to charge about $70 for a six-minute ride from Manhattan to the JFK Airport, which is not too shabby a deal. As far as manufacturing costs go, it’ll drop once they’re able to mass produce the vehicles, churning out about 10,000 units a year. Before that, it’ll likely cost more than $1 million to produce a single unit.
Will it Work in Singapore?
There’s no doubt air taxis will revolutionise urban travel, but for now, it doesn’t seem feasible enough to work. At least not in Singapore, where land and natural resources are in short supply. In comparison to other, larger cities with longer roads and bigger congestion problems, Singapore is getting by rather decently. The government is also working towards expanding the MRT network, making the metropolis more accessible. With that comes the shortening of public transport durations, which could encourage the population to leave their car keys at home. At the end of the day, what’s the point of introducing flying cars if it’s not going to tackle on-the-ground issues? It’s akin to flying off to Mars and investing millions into relocating an endangered population to another planet, instead of using the same resources to protect the one in which it currently resides. Better to save the sci-fi fantasy for the books this time.