The general idea has been bouncing around since the early 20th century — at least, touted by the likes of Henry Ford, “The Jetsons” cartoon series and even the U.S. Army. Now, Uber is the latest company to make people imagine a future where flying cars whisk commuters over traffic.
The rideshare giant recently reopened a contest to select the first non-U.S. city to host the company’s envisioned flying taxi service. Uber had already selected Dallas and Los Angeles as the first domestic launch cities for uberAIR, scheduled for demonstration flights in 2020, with regular service expected in 2023.
It’s not just Uber either. Volocopter, eHang, and Kitty Hawk — all startups — are trying to develop similar services and technology along with Boeing and Airbus. The projects could take the rideshare economy to a new frontier, literally — adding new customer and revenue streams, along with a sense of excitement that probably beats the mundane experience of riding in the backseat of a car.
However, a closer look at the business proposition, for what many still consider as flying cars, reveals significant challenges along with the opportunities.
Cost And Time
First, lose the romantic view of “flying cars.” What Uber is proposing — and it has probably offered more recent detail about its plans than the other companies active in this space — can more accurately be described as a helicopter, according to analysts.
Gartner's Michael Ramsey, research director for automotive and smart mobility, said, “The idea has merit, but helicopter flight by the very rich has existed for decades.”
In fact, the dream offered up by “The Jetsons” might not ever make it past colorful drawings. Sam Korus, an analyst with Ark Invest, stated, “A vehicle for both the road and the air won’t be commercialized. It doesn’t make sense. These air taxis will be for flight only, more along the lines of a potentially safer, quieter, autonomous, electric helicopter.”
That’s not to say the vehicles and transit services envisioned by Uber and other companies will fall flat.
Korus added, “In fewer than five years, personal drones could fly passengers from cities to airports at a price competitive with traditional taxis, if the batteries that power them continue to improve as we expect.”
According to ARK research, those air taxes could transport passengers from Midtown Manhattan to JFK Airport in eight minutes, which is about 25 percent of the time a surface taxi would need. The cost would run approximately $74, “a small premium to the $65 it would cost today,” Korus said. “Traditional helicopters might be faster — five minutes — but at $195, far more expensive, while the subway will take more time but cost much less.”
Air Vehicle Regulations
Companies hoping to launch air taxi services face a host of problems, besides making the cost and time attractive to the broadest group of consumers possible. For one, federal regulations limit the number of vehicles that can be in the sky at any one time, Ramsey said.
“Practical reality says it will be very hard to have many of these in the air at once,” he explained. “So it may solve congestion for a small number of people but it won’t do much for society.”
Ramsey said it is likely that uberAIR and similar services will prove “quite valuable in a commercial context,” and result in high-value products for the operators. “But I suspect the number of these things will be limited.”
Then, There Are Those Fees
Among the keys for making air taxis a profitable product are landing fees. For instance, Manhattan heliports charge high landing fees, not only because of the scarcity of such facilities, but because they require the help of skilled controllers for takeoffs and landings, according to analysts and reports. That will not necessarily be the case for passenger drones, which are more maneuverable than traditional helicopters — a factor that can drive down the cost of those landing fees.
Those air taxis — or passenger drones, depending on preference — also have lower operating costs than traditional helicopters, another plus for the business proposition. Not to mention, the taxis run on electricity, ARK said, “a much cheaper source of energy than aviation fuel.” Upfront capital costs for air taxi services will run lower than for traditional helicopters.
Finally, while the Federal Aviation Administration still requires pilots on board helicopters — a regulatory problem that Uber and its putative competitors have yet to solve — autonomous airborne drones would obviously save on the expense of pilots. Even if it turns out that air taxis cost too much for the mainstream consumer, or don’t present serious price competition to surface vehicles, the business case still looks promising.
“If an electric air taxi costs the same price as a regular taxi, but takes a fraction of the time to get to the airport, then I think it’s easy to imagine there will be a sizeable demand for that service,” Korus said. “Why would anyone want to spend two hours in traffic when they could pay the same amount and get there in about 20 minutes?”