- Electric planes have better uses than transporting small groups of passengers through cities
When Rick Deckard, the hero of the 1982 sci-fi film “Blade Runner”, looks to a futuristic Los Angeles from a flying patrol, you can see a warning of Pan Am shining in one of the towers. It is an allusion to the helicopter service that flew from the old building of the Pan Am airline in Manhattan to the John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK); the service was abolished in 1977 after a fatal accident.
Urban mobility is returning to the future. An Uber executive, who wants to operate flying taxis no later than 2023, promised this week that the “so ungraspable flying car” is almost here. He was giving a presentation during a conference for his Elevate division, in which the details of his new 30-minute helicopter service, Uber Copter, from Manhattan to JFK were announced.
Uber has selected Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne in Australia as pilot cities for its Uber Air taxi service, while Lilium – a Munich startup company that is building an electric plane with 36 engines – plans to hire hundreds of software engineers in London. Advances in engines and batteries are making Mr. Deckard’s short air travel possible; The question is whether it is desirable.
I doubt it. The problem with electric aircraft is that those that would be undeniably useful – the long-range aircraft that would reduce the industry’s carbon emissions – continue to be a distant possibility. Taxis for short trips that will transport a few people through a city, adding noise in the sky to some already congested streets, are closer to becoming reality.
There is something about flying that provokes enthusiasm in investors, but that often ends in disappointment. The vision of the flights on demand in “very light jets” (VLJ, for its acronym in English), led startup companies such as DayJet and Pogo to place huge orders of aircraft, including the Eclipse 500 in the mid-1990s. 2000, and then to bankruptcy.
The profitability of the airlines depends on the aircraft being in constant use, flying from one place to another. The consulting firm Roland Berger estimates that 100,000 “passenger drones” could be operating by 2050, and the bullish argument presented by Morgan Stanley is that the lack of congestion in the sky means that a flying taxi could make 40 trips per day, 32 kilometers each one, in an eight-hour shift.
A better public transport system would eliminate the need for private urban aviation; helicopters fly from Manhattan to JFK because there is no high-speed train service to the airport, as is the case in other cities. People pile up in private cars and Uber cars, which causes a traffic jam along the Long Island Expressway and creates demand for a US $ 200 Uber Copter trip instead of a $ 50 trip on a Uber Copter. cab.
The high-speed train is a useless aspiration in many American cities because it is impossible to find public investment that reaches billions of dollars. Elon Musk, the founder of the electric car company Tesla, wants to drill his own tunnels, including a pair from Chicago to O’Hare International Airport. It is quixotic, but he is right that rail is more civic and environmentally sound than flying taxis.
Security represents another problem. Private helicopters have a worse accident record than cars, and the crash of a private helicopter with mechanical problems in Manhattan on Monday, in which the pilot died, was the second fatal accident in a month. As Robert Thomson, a partner of Roland Berger, commented: “The safety argument for flying taxis moving around tall buildings, in all kinds of climates, is difficult.”
Electric aircraft manufacturers, such as Lilium, insist that they are safer than helicopters because they have more engines and more rotors, and are less vulnerable to a single point of failure. But the technology will have to advance long before the fleets of autonomous flying taxis, which are the ultimate goal of Uber, are safe.
Meanwhile, there is the daily problem of noise. Mr. Deckard’s flying car rises in the air with a mellifluous shriek, but no one who lives near a helicopter platform would be convinced by that. Even the noise of a small flying drone can be intrusive, and an air taxi with several people on board will need a powerful push to ascend vertically.
Uber’s ambition is that the flying taxis he plans to operate, which will be manufactured by companies such as Boeing and Bell Helicopter, are only half as noisy as a medium-sized truck passing 15 meters from a house. Since Uber, on its own, also foresees hundreds of flights a day in some cities, the combined effect could sound like a highway in the sky.
Technology companies that suffer losses often respond by inventing a new financial metric and, as expected, Uber’s white paper on urban air mobility in 2016 “explored a more nuanced and more complete definition of noise than just sound pressure” . Discussing different financial metrics with investors is one thing, but trying to redefine the concept of noise to residents who are on their flight path will be difficult.
Mid-range electric jets that produce less noise and less emissions than traditional jets have potential. Lilium wants to operate services of up to 300 kilometers between towns and cities, and Zunum Aero, backed by Boeing, is building a hybrid electric regional jet in the US. When rail connections are unprofitable, fast transport on an electric aircraft is an attractive idea. But it would be better for cities to put more people on trains instead of releasing squads of private taxis in the sky. Regulators and investors will determine if services like Uber Air are worthy of approval and if they merit financial risk. Both should pause before turning science fiction into a reality.