Over the last century, air travel has connected our countries and cities, making it easier to fly further afield than spend time in our local areas. But can proposed plans for flying taxis reconnect our communities?
The commuting crisis
Today we take it for granted that we can fly for a meeting or holiday anywhere across the world. Yet within our communities, we’re still largely reliant on cars, trains, tubes and buses to travel.
And with congestion getting worse, it’s not just pollution and climate change that are major concerns, but also the social impact congestion is having on our communities.
We all know that commuting eats into our social time. Time that we could be spending with our families, friends, neighbours, or within our local areas. Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist suggests that every 10 minutes we spend commuting results in 10 per cent fewer social connections.
As Aviation entrepreneur Rodin Lyasoff says: “On a day-to-day basis, we still spend a lot of time in cars. Or actively trying to avoid it. Some of my best friends live in San Francisco. I live, about 40 miles away. We're all busy. At the end of the day, we're separated by something like two hours of heavy traffic. So frankly, we haven't seen each other in a few months.”
Are flying taxis about to take off?
The idea of being lifted above the traffic and sped to our destination is being shored up as a solution to the commuting problem. And many companies believe that urban air transportation is closer than we think.
The UK’s Vertical Aerospace have completed a test flight for an umanned VTOL aircraft prototype. Recognising that aviation is also a major contributor to pollution and climate change, the company want to “decarbonise air travel”.
Vertical Aerospace aims to revolutionise how we fly and give people access to on-demand, carbon-free air travel from their local neighbourhood to their destination.
While Uber has been working with world-class aerospace partners such as NASA and top aircraft manufacturers to design a new class of flying vehicles.
The company has unveiled a prototype for their proposed electric flying taxi service – Uber Air. They plan to start testing between Dallas and Los Angeles in 2020. The service will transport passengers between rooftop landing pads called ‘skyports’ in these cities, with around 200 take-offs and landings proposed each hour.
But how realistic is it?
Experts argue that more air travel will put a strain on the current air traffic control systems. But others don’t agree. As Lyasoff says:
“The sky is underutilised, and I would argue it will never be as congested as the roads are. First of all, you've got a whole other dimension, but also just safety considerations and air-traffic management will not allow bumper-to-bumper traffic in the sky. Which means, in many cases, flying can be a long-term, compelling alternative to traveling on the ground.”
Then there’s the cost. Will it be out of reach for most of us? Lyasoff doesn’t think so. He explains that electric motors are actually “cleaner, cheaper and quieter than internal combustion engines.”
Lyasoff’s team at A3 has also built an electric vehicle and put it to the test.
“It's fully electric. It takes off and lands vertically, but flies forward like a regular airplane. It's fully self-piloted. You push a button, it takes off, flies and lands, all by itself.”
It can fly about 20 miles in 15 minutes – a journey that would cost around $40. His team are already developing a new version that can carry at least two people and go even further.
A new golden age of air travel
Lyasoff imagines that we’re about to enter a new golden age of air travel. He believes that small, autonomous air taxis will allow us to bypass traffic jams and transform how we get around our towns and cities.
"In the past century, flight connected our planet,” he says. “In the next, it will reconnect our local communities.”
If flying taxis can have a positive social impact and help bring us all closer together, surely they can only be a good thing.