The far-reaching impact of the flying car is that it could eventually make all other modes of transport obsolete. If a city becomes too congested for cars, there are many people who would rather use their personal vehicle than fight the traffic every day. This will be a great shift in our transportation system, but one hurdle has yet to be addressed: where do you park your flying car?
The “flying cars” is a concept that has been around for decades. The biggest problem with flying cars is on the ground.
In more ways than one, the businesses and investors who have raised expectations for “flying automobiles” may be in for a bumpy landing.
Hundreds of businesses, both new and established in the aviation industry, are developing such vehicles, often known as air taxis or eVTOLs (short for electric vertical take off and landing). In the last year, five of these companies have gone public. They’re working to create a future in which taking a flying taxi is a more cost-effective option than taking a terrestrial one.
The largest roadblock to that sci-fi vision, though, is fairly mundane: Flying-car firms haven’t worked out how to locate, authorize, and build enough landing and takeoff areas for their vehicles to establish a viable business model for manufacturing and operating sky taxis.
Through a cooperation with parking-facilities company Reef Technologies, Joby Aviation seeks to locate landing places for its planes.
Andrew Kelly/Reuters photo
The issue might have major ramifications for the fledgling flying-car sector, as well as any prospect that we will soon be commuting by air. Early entrants to the market, such as Joby Aviation, Lilium, Wisk, Airbus, and Archer Aviation, have concentrated on the issues of developing and producing functional flying cars, as well as obtaining FAA certification. These are significant obstacles. Leaving aside the initial expense of building a prototype flying vehicle, the process of submitting such designs to the FAA, testing them to ensure they satisfy the agency’s criteria, and changing them may take years and cost up to $1 billion, according to experts.
According to Todd Petersen, a consultant at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Lacuna Technologies, which creates software for cities to help them manage their transportation networks, most early investors in these companies have acted as if solving those challenges is 90 percent of the work required to make flying cars commercially viable.
That ignores a slew of other concerns once the vehicles are ready to fly, including where they will land and take off, how they will be integrated into existing air-traffic control systems, and whether the public will accept a large number of newfangled and comparatively large aircraft flying over their homes. Mr. Petersen claims that sorting out all of the regulations and ground infrastructure is the “second 90%” of the difficulty of introducing flying automobiles.
The firms building electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles all claim that flying above traffic would dramatically reduce travel times. However, in order to keep that promise, their take-off and landing locations, known as vertiports, must be located where passengers need them. George Downs of the Wall Street Journal investigates their techniques and why they matter. George Downs’ illustration
Mihir Rimjha is a senior aviation consultant at HMMH, a firm that provides transportation planning assistance to governments and businesses. In work commissioned by NASA, he researched “vertiports,” which are similar to heliports but for eVTOLs. He believes that expanding networks of rooftop vertiports atop buildings and parking decks throughout the United States will be vital to make flying taxis and even privately owned flying automobiles a viable mode of transportation. He also claims that the firms haven’t been realistic about the challenges.
To begin with, there is the issue of how many acceptable vertiport locations are available in America’s main cities. Noise, the lack of airspace not already claimed by airports in cities like New York, and the need to retrofit existing structures to be strong enough to accommodate flying vehicles while also providing massive bursts of electricity for charging are just a few of the factors that affect that equation.
Setting that aside, Mr. Petersen adds that any landing site for a vertical-take-off-and-landing vehicle must be largely clear of nearby structures—not only today, but eternally. The FAA’s regulations on helicopter landing pads, which most in the industry think will be the basis for laws regulating vertiports, include this need. As a result, obtaining FAA approval for a flying car landing pad necessitates determining all of the “glide pathways” that such a vehicle may take while approaching a landing location in the event of a technical failure.
Preservation of such glide routes might imply that property owners near to vertiports could never be able to construct anything higher than the vertiport—a complex and perhaps contentious issue if cities are to host a large number of such vertiports.
During a test flight, Archer Aviation’s Maker hovered. Reef Technologies, like Joby, has a collaboration with the corporation.
Archer Aviation photo
The history of helipads in New York City might be instructive. Obtaining FAA approval for a private landing pad is difficult, and people often reject them—as they did when Amazon was awarded one during its effort to create an HQ in Long Island City. Since 1977, when a collision on the roof of the Pan Am building killed five people, the city’s rooftop helipads have been closed.
Joby and Archer, who both went public last year, have said that they want to acquire access to vertiports by partnering with Softbank-backed Reef Technologies, which maintains parking lots and multistory parking decks around the United States. Last year, Joby said that the partnership will provide it with “unparalleled access to rooftop locations across all major metropolitan regions in the United States, as well as a mechanism to finance the purchase and development of additional skyport sites.”
Joby is “focused first on existing aviation infrastructure and convertible assets,” such as the aforementioned parking garages, according to a spokesman.
Archer has been tight-lipped about its vertiport aspirations.
Wisk’s director of product development, Erick Corona, thinks his firm can sell enough of its autonomous cars to users of existing heliport and airport infrastructure to make a profit. Developers of vertiports, such as SkyPorts, a Wisk partner, will eventually be allowed to build them where demand exists.
Flying automobiles may receive their own dedicated routes in the skies in the future, he says.
Many U.S. cities currently have heliports, according to Jeremy Ford, director of property strategy at Reef, but it is still “early innings” for his firm and flying-car companies in terms of working out how vertiports will be built and where they will be put.
Ricky Sandhu is in the vanguard of the effort to tackle the vertiport challenge, and he believes that pessimistic assessments of the flying vehicle industry’s future are “totally correct and entirely on the money.”
The vertiport of Air One in Coventry, England, has had some teething issues.
He is the creator and CEO of Urban-Air Port, which claims to have just launched Air One, the world’s first operational urban vertiport, in a parking lot near a railway station in Coventry, England. Mr. Sandhu is an architect who has worked on large infrastructure projects as part of design teams. He had a lightbulb moment in 2017 while consulting for Airbus on its flying-car efforts: someone needed to work with landlords, local air traffic controllers, national governments, and city zoning boards to give the vehicles places to touch ground for this new mode of transportation to truly take off.
For the last two weeks, Air One has hosted roughly ten drone flights every day. Air One has experienced teething problems, according to Mr. Sandhu, despite strong coordination with local and national air traffic controllers and the city of Coventry, which is sponsoring the vertiport. A huge freight drone, for example, was meant to fly from Air One and land on the top of a parking deck somewhere else in the city recently. However, because of safety concerns expressed by the builders of an office skyscraper under construction along the flight route, the drone could only take off, circle, and land.
“Investment in eVTOLs is at danger without the necessary infrastructure,” Mr. Sandhu argues.
Due to infrastructure issues, Air, an Israeli business, has decided to pursue an alternative strategy: building personal flying automobiles that can hop between privately owned vertiports. Air plans to sell its flying vehicles directly to people who will pilot them themselves, bypassing the high degree of FAA certification needed of passenger planes and the requirement to maintain vertiports, according to CEO Rani Plaut. He adds that some of the company’s clients are already developing vertiports for their houses.
Investors on the stock market are wary of flying car firms. The valuations of the five flying-car businesses that went public through SPAC in the last year (Vertical, Joby, Archer, Lilium, and Eve) have dropped dramatically since their peaks at the beginning of April, in keeping with the overall selloff of shares in tech companies that have yet to generate a profit. Joby’s stock has lost nearly $2.4 billion in value, or 35% of its worth since March 31.
A depiction of an Archer vertiport on the roof of a parking complex.
Archer Aerospace photo
Other grounds for caution are cited by skeptics. Dr. Rimjha co-authored a report last year that found that almost none of the assumptions touted by air-taxi companies that have recently gone public appear to be realistic: not their cost-per-vehicle figures, their assumptions about cost-per-mile to operate these vehicles, or the time it will take to turn these vehicles into a commercial service.
Joby estimated that each car would cost $1.3 million to produce when it went public. Based on decades of analyzing airplanes, Antonio Trani, a professor of engineering at Virginia Tech and Dr. Rimjha’s co-author, predicts that when the FAA finishes certifying Joby’s vehicle, the real price will be between $2 million and $3 million. Joby also estimates that the cars’ running expenses will be 86 cents per passenger mile. Dr. Trani estimates that the real cost per passenger mile will be between $3 and $4.
Companies won’t be able to place vertiports where customers want to go, according to the study. “We can’t actually find much room for vertiports, even on roofs,” Dr. Rimjha adds, when considering everything that’s necessary in the locations in America’s cities where there might be the most demand for flying vehicles, such as crowded urban centres.
“Permitting is a big challenge” for future vertiports, says Mike Whitaker, a former FAA administrator who is now chief commercial officer of Supernal, a Hyundai affiliate working on its own flying vehicle. It’s likely that towns could be obliged to build vertiports in more distant and low-lying areas—abandoned shopping malls might be ideal—and that having access to such an asset would spur additional real-estate development around it, he says.
By selling its flying vehicles to people rather than running them as a commercial service, Israeli firm Air aims to sidestep certain legal headaches.
Photo credit: Air
According to Dr. Rimjha, this would add time to any such journey for commuters or even simply wealthy individuals who want to travel out of town, and this would have a significant influence on how frequently they utilize such services.
This might compel air taxi businesses to reconsider their business models, potentially focusing on smaller markets like replacing a portion of the world’s current helicopter fleet.
SHARING YOUR IDEAS
What do you think it will take for flying vehicles to become commonplace? Participate in the discussion below.
According to Robin Riedel, co-leader of the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility and a partner at the consultancy company, “regional air mobility”—flights between cities and towns—is a more plausible use for eVTOLs in the immediate term than flights inside cities.
Because of the time and effort necessary to build the ground infrastructure for flying vehicles, corporations who can afford to play the long game may be the ones that succeed in the end. If plummeting stock prices and a lack of investment lead the flying-car business to consolidate, it’s possible that legacy aerospace corporations, rather than disruptors, will construct our Jetsons future.
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Christopher Mims can be reached at [email protected]
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