Flying cars: A worldwide race for the skies
The race to introduce the first commercial flying taxi is officially on, said Adam Satariano in The New York Times. Uber, Google, Boeing, and Porsche are among 20 companies “testing their machines, laying the groundwork for wider production,” and starting to lobby government officials to bring autonomous all-electric vehicles into the skies in just a few years. Lilium, a German startup, has raised more than $100 million from investors. Its prototype jet—which is still seeking certification from European regulators—looks “less like a Jetsons-like flying car than a glider, with a carbon fiber body and 36-foot wingspan.” But it’s purportedly capable of taking off and landing vertically, like a helicopter, and is quiet enough “to land in some areas traditionally off-limits to aircraft”—even midtown Manhattan.
Just one problem: The proliferation of air vehicles over New York already represents a “clear and present danger to public safety,” said Michael McDowell in New York magazine. New York City skies are filled with helicopters, from Uber and smaller companies such as Blade. Since 1983, “there have been at least 30 helicopter crashes in the city.” In other places, unmanned drones are already creating tension in the skies, said James Leggate in FoxBusiness.com. Earlier this month, fire-department helicopters battling wildfires in Los Angeles had to halt for hours because of hobby drones shooting video of the scene.
“There are several hurdles before commuters are whizzing through the air,” said Dalvin Brown in USA Today. Many of the vehicles now being imagined require “magical electric batteries that don’t exist—yet.” The best that anyone can do right now with an electric battery is 20 minutes of flight. An even bigger obstacle is gaining approval from the FAA, which has strict compliance guidelines for small aircraft, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
That’s why the first practical commercial tests of drone taxis are likely to be outside the U.S., said Jeremy Bogaisky in Forbes.com. “EHang became the first company to receive approval from Chinese aviation regulators to establish a pilot air-taxi service,” in Guangzhou, known for its “crushing traffic congestion.” Though the service hasn’t yet started, EHang is already trying to go public with a $100 million stock offering. To make a go of it in the U.S., air taxi companies will need much more than that. “Taking a small conventional aircraft through the regulatory forest of safety certification to production can cost $75 million to $100 million”—and those are vehicles that regulators already understand. One source of cash: auto companies trying hard to “future-proof” themselves. Ford and General Motors are already “believed to be spending about $1 billion a year” on research and development for autonomous vehicles.
Lilium, Jonathan Banks for Microsoft ■