Flying Taxis: Science fiction or science fact?

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As the global population expands and the world’s cities become more densely populated, sustainable urban mobility is a priority moving forward. With automobile sales expected to increase from 70 million a year in 2010 to 125 million by 2025, road real estate is increasingly scarce, bringing up the question as to whether the current infrastructure of our cities can support this level of expansion. Not only is the lack of space an issue, but also the environmental impact caused the number of vehicles on the roads.

onefourzero research also indicates some growing interest in this area, with global searches on urban development and sustainability increasing by 15% globally, and general online conversations on sustainability increasing globally by 24% over the last 12 months. And it won’t stop any time soon.

With solutions for congestion highly sought after, the catchily titled eVTOL (Electric Vertical Take-off and Landing Aircraft) presents a futuristic answer to this problem. The same way skyscrapers revolutionised city skylines, these “flying taxis” present the opportunity to build our road infrastructure into the third dimension, a concept that comes right out of science fiction (see 1982’s Blade Runner or 1997’s The Fifth Element).

Developments over the past 12 months would suggest that flying taxis could become science fact soon enough.  Uber has announced intentions to demo its flying taxi service (the aptly named UberAir) in the US in 2020 with the aim of it being offered to commercial buyers by 2023.

Furthermore, on the 5 September 2017, Lilum raised $90 million in series B funding backed by Tencent, LGT, Atomico (their investor in Series A funding) and Obvious Ventures. This investment suggests that there is a real belief in the next 5 years, not just optimism in a concept, but something with commercial value.

Analysing the claims made by developers, it’s not surprising that eVTOLs are gathering traction. Along with easing urban congestion, they are electric thus in line with sustainability movements. Their electric engines make for quiet travel thus easing noise pollution, and they are fast meaning you can travel from London to Paris in one hour, soaring at 300km/h. Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich said of his flight on the Volocopter, “That was fantastic, the best flight I have ever had.” It can be difficult to tell whether the topic of discussion is a flying taxi or magical elixir for urban infrastructure.

Martin Summers, who leads the ESG and Sustainability practice at our sister agency GK Strategy, is more cautious: “Creating a more widespread 3D transport system is essential to tackling urban sustainability issues. As Elon Musk recently said, our workplaces and residences are 3D but most travel happens on 2d infrastructure. But airspace needs to be much more tightly regulated and coordinated than road space. The technology to create flying taxis is one thing; the smarts to create the regulatory regime and infrastructure to support is another. As Uber demonstrates, it’s not enough just to have the technology to deliver your service; you have to win hearts and minds to create the regulatory space for it to thrive”.

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that the flying taxi’s journey to becoming a city staple of the future will be a smooth one. Without even delving into the potential physical hurdles in the development of the eVTOL, the testing and regulation need for a commercially-viable autonomous airborne passenger-carrying vehicle is likely to be intensive and lengthy.

Brian Krzanich stated post-flight that “everybody will fly one of these someday”, but whether that day is anytime in the near future is a different question entirely. Ridley Scott’s cult classic Blade Runner was set in a 2019 Los Angeles where the police roam the skies in “spinners”, vehicles not too dissimilar to eVTOL’s. Despite the investment and the optimism, it seems unlikely that flying taxis will provide the solution to sustainable urban mobility so soon, let alone in 2019.

To find out more about how onefourzero’s data and insights can help you identify opportunities for growth and potential risks, contact fleur@onefourzerogroup.com