Flying Cars

I know lots of people thought that by this time in history we would have flying cars. Those of us who grew up watching The Jetsons on Saturday morning were certain that by the early 21st century we would all be traveling in flying cars. While we are not there yet, we are getting closer. Two key companies that have taken the lead in developing Personal Air Vehicles are Uber and Lilium (a German company).

The challenge is “to deliver a safe, cost-effective, reliable and quiet aerial commuting solution using technologies and infrastructure that are available in the near-term.” The problem is that the complex ecosystem has to be put in place all at one time.

Here are just a few of the difficulties: aircraft management, pilot management, skyport management, power and electric management, skyport operations, and communication infrastructure management. So, there are lots of moving parts that have to come together for this innovation to work.

The calculations Uber is using to determine the demand for service is $8.93 per mile per passenger. The Uber Elevate would attract the same number of people using helicopters, at a similar cost range of an auto at $0.49 per passenger. The challenge is determining the demand curve for people wanting to go from point A to point B each hour of the week of the year. Expect to see pricing algorithms similar to what you see now in Uber.

The two companies are looking at internal combustion, hybrid-electric, and electric-only Personal Air Vehicles. The existing rule structures in most cities would favor electric-only Personal Air Vehicles. Here are several key challenges for this new industry and why electric-only may be the path forward:

  1. City codes for handling and storing liquid fuels for internal combustion engines are costly for elevated vertiports.
  2. The danger of onboard fire due to liquid fuels is much higher for internal combustion engines than for battery fires.
  3. Meeting noise requirements with existing combustion engines would be hard. A helicopter sound is 85dB at 500 feet; Uber is targeting 70dB.
  4. Electric vehicles using today’s state-of-the-art battery technology can already meet weight and recharge targets needed for high utilization and weight.
  5. Vertiports in most locations can readily access electrical capacity needed for recharging during a ten-minute unloading and reloading cycle.

So what is next? Uber Elevate will begin testing in L.A. and Dallas in 2020 and begin limited commercial trials in 2023 and 2024. The standards Uber is imposing on partner technology will go a long way toward ensuring safety. Urban air mobility is projected to grow to $150 billion by 2035.

Maybe the dream of the flying car is not that far off. Time will tell.