In recent years, the media has kept a spotlight on advancements in autonomous cars and trucks, thanks to automakers’ and tech companies’ high-profile investments in snazzy vehicles and a myriad of on- and off-road experiments in cities across the country. However, there is another, more stealthy mobility trend promising to reinvent urban mobility this decade: the rise of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.
Like traditional helicopters, eVTOL aircraft are able to rise, hover and land vertically. But, they also are much more lightweight and can transition to winged flight once airborne. Most importantly, they run on electricity, uniquely suiting them to autonomous operation thanks to operational and maintenance efficiencies. This is why major companies as different as Airbus and Hyundai, and numerous lesser-known (but very serious) manufacturers, are designing, building and testing eVTOL units to fulfill a range of mobility roles both within, and between, cities. These roles at first will be limited to carrying cargo, but the real prize is to bring fully autonomous passenger air vehicles to life.
If you’re imagining a city skyline with hundreds of small, pilotless aircraft whirring from place to place, collecting and dropping off passengers day and night – then, yes, you get the idea. What’s more, the advent of this urban air mobility (UAM) age is nearly upon us. A prominent driver of this evolution is Uber, which is targeting 2023 (not a typo) as the launch date for its aerial ride-sharing service. Although human pilots may be involved at the outset, the vision is for eVTOL units to be autonomous after they’ve been proven safe to regulatory authorities and market-responsive to their investors.
A Few Hurdles
Meeting acceptable safety standards might seem like an impossible hurdle, particularly when you consider how difficult it’s been to bring autonomous vehicles to our roads. Here in Florida, where I have been working to advance Autonomous, Connected, Electric and Shared (ACES) concepts for years, we recently launched the state’s first autonomous shuttle system on public roads. But soon after, the NTSB ordered a suspension of operations due to an incident involving a shuttle of the same make in a different state. Here in Florida, we realize that such complications are part of the journey, and remain committed to making our state the number one location for ACES technology innovators.
Fortunately, the federal government seems keen to make UAM a reality in the near future. A high-profile example of this is NASA’s Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenge, which is bringing together vehicle makers, airspace operations experts and other technology leaders to collaborate and develop new transportation or airspace management technologies. NASA recently signed agreements with a number of startups and established companies to launch the development testing phase of the Grand Challenge. Also, the FAA has been busy laying out a certification pathway for UAV aircraft, which will be critical when you consider that there are already more than 200 designs in play.
Laying the Groundwork
On the surface, Urban Air Mobility has one clear advantage over most other modes of transportation: Air is free. Unlike highways and rail systems that demand billions in annual upkeep just to stay in service, the aerial pathways for eVTOL units have zero cost. However, as with airplanes, eVTOL will demand the creation of robust and well-thought out ground infrastructure to support operations. This infrastructure may not require square miles of land the way airports do, but they present other challenges.
For one thing, these “vertical ports” must be built in a variety of places, such as at transit hubs, atop city buildings and adjacent to major developments. It’s essential that people have reasonably easy access to eVTOL service, and maintenance, charging and related capabilities must be readily available at some of these ports. Some experts envision the majority of ports being built on the outskirts of cities, but I believe that other transportation trends will allow proliferation of in-city facilities. In particular, ridesharing will continue to free up space in urban garages, which could be converted into intermodal hubs with upper decks serving as ports for the relatively lightweight and quiet eVTOL.
Ensuring Access and Affordability
Skeptics of the eVTOL concept argue that services will cost too much to gain broad acceptance, but I disagree. eVTOL will take its place as a viable transportation option that many people will choose or forego, based on their personal calculus. Every day, some people choose to pay a toll of $5 or more to use certain highway travel lanes, to get home a half-hour earlier. Others pay twice as much for an Acela or Virgin train ticket to get to a business meeting earlier, with more amenities. I believe that there will be plenty of people who will weigh the return-on-investment of jumping into an eVTOL aircraft to leapfrog Friday road congestion, visit an ill relative in the next city, or transport a person with disabilities.
Personally, I anticipate the day when I will take the elevator to the roof of my downtown Miami condo building to catch a 5-minute eVTOL ride to Miami International Airport – a trip that could take an hour during certain times of day via other modes. This is no mere fantasy: Here at the 58-floor Paramount Miami Worldcenter they are building one of the nation’s first eVTOL SkyPorts (check out the brief video).
For now, this novel port serves as inspiration – for me and other innovators as we think about how we will operate in a multi-dimensional transportation world.
By Beth Kigel, Vice President at HNTB
Beth Kigel serves as national practice leader, Intelligent Transportation and Emerging Mobility Solutions for HNTB Corp. She is a global thought-leader in new mobility and smart city ecosystems and helps transportation agencies, cities and regions develop smart, connected infrastructure solutions.
Header image courtesy NASA / Lillian Gipson