Are Flying Taxis The Future?

This recent NY Times article about the quest to build a flying Taxi service is interesting but doesn’t address some of the less thought about questions when moving from the ground to the air.

In the real world, and not the imagined one of Silicon Valley, all air traffic is controlled by Air Traffic Control (ATC) making sure that all planes operating in controlled air spaces are accounted for and aware of other traffic in the area. Much like the highway system, in the sky there are lanes of traffic that planes generally fly on.

And yes, even helicopters work with ATC.

Jason Henry for The New York Times

What Is a Flying Car?

By Cade Metz and Erin Griffith – June 12, 2021

Inside Silicon Valley’s 10-year quest to make soaring above a crowded city street as easy as calling an Uber.

If we ignore the large commercial airlines that most people are familiar with and think about the private airplanes like Cessna or Piper, when operating under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), the planes do have more leeway on where to fly, but generally will follow a specified flight plan when flying cross country. This is because in the air, it’s easier to get lost or disorientated then when driving on I-10, for example.

So the question becomes under what rules will flying taxis operate under? If they would be required to essentially be a replacement for helicopters then the idea of them being Taxis where you wave down a passing one is no longer a “taxi” replacement. It will not be, as these investors would have you believe, as easy as calling an Uber.

It will be that you will have a set time to depart, flight plans will need to be filed and there will be a set destination. Nothing as quick and easy as calling an Uber.

Now, some may argue that these flying cars are essentially large drones, but even today, drones have sever limits on how they can be operated (if not fully practiced by the public in general). For example, because of the private/public air space, drones should not be flown above 400 feet. In many countries, it’s illegal to fly drones above crowds of people (being that if the batteries fail or the device needs to make an emergency landing, it won’t come down on top of someone). While it’s easy to say, okay, 350 – 400 feet is good enough for a flying taxi, these certainly won’t be permitted to operate within cities and especially not in downtown New York, for example.

So to be usable, you’ll still need to call an Uber to get to the landing pad for the flying taxi, which, in a large metropolitan area, would at best be on top of a building or in an open field. And at that point, why not just let the Uber take you the rest of the way.

The other issue will be emergency procedures. Airplanes fly above ground level (AGL) at certain minimums to avoid ground bases obstacles and, in case of engine failure, power loss, or emergency event, the time to try and get a controlled landing as safely as possible. If Air Taxis were flying down 5th avenue in New York City, as futurists envisioned, any single emergency event would put many lives at stake from above.

While I’m not negative on the development of the technology, these are, at best, a new generation of helicopters that may provide cheaper and quicker short hop ability. For example, a flying taxi hub is being built in central Florida to take passengers from Lake Nona to Tampa in 30 minutes. That trip, by car, is about an hour and half. However, remember, the flight is 30 minutes, but I’m suspecting there will be time on each end, so at best, it’ll be about an hour total time (get to terminal, wait for taxi, board taxi, ATC flight clearance, etc, take off, fly, landing, etc). It’s still faster, yes, but once you get there, you’ll then need to get another taxi/Uber to take you to your final destination.

The distance you will be able to take these taxis will be limited by weight and battery life, so while a lot of people say by 2023 we’ll be zooming around in air taxis are probably, as usual, being a bit aggressive. And a lot of the development and promise focuses on autonomous vehicles doing the flying.

I.e. without a pilot (although, lets be honest, there’s no way in hell the government will license this for public use without a backup pilot on board)., so would you trust it enough right now to be a passenger?

Maybe in the future, when autonomous cars have fully shown the capability to drive us without us paying attention., but that’s not going to be 2023…probably not until at least 2030 at best.

The new generation of air taxis will change the helicopter business, that’s for sure, but will they become a societal change for the future? Maybe about as much as the Segway was.

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