Urban Air Taxi: 3 Unique Factors in Powerful Tech Development

Image showing the Bell Nexus urban air taxi.

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The urban air taxi is one of the most applicable uses of eVTOL technology. Also referred to as urban air mobility, short-range electric aircraft could potentially revolutionize the way we travel around urban environments.

But will introducing the new technology be as simple as it seems? If not, what can be done about it? Let’s find out.

What is an Urban Air Taxi?

As the name suggests, an urban air taxi is an aircraft that functions as a taxi in urban spaces. eVTOLs are able to fill this niche because, unlike helicopters or planes, they’re better suited for cities. This is because:

  • They’re quiet. The main advantage is that eVTOLs have a much lower noise profile than other aircraft. In turn, this makes them suitable for urban environments.
  • They’re quick to charge. In theory, an eVTOLs battery can be charged in less than an hour.
  • They’re autonomous. Although it’s not an industry standard, many urban air taxi companies are working on autonomous vehicles. This means there are less overheads and greater flexibility.

But perhaps the biggest advantage of establishing an urban air taxi industry is the ability to take congestion off the roads. In 2018, the average American spent 2.5 work weeks (or 97 hours) in traffic jams. Considering the number of vehicles on roads will only increase, any option for reducing congestion is good, right?

How Will an Urban Air Taxi Work?

At the most basic level, an urban air taxi will work the same as any other taxi service. Passengers will book a ride, get in the vehicle, and be taken to their destination. Unsurprisingly, though, it’s a bit more complicated when you’re using an autonomous flying vehicle.

As such, the following factors are vital for the service to work properly.

Booking App

This isn’t a revolutionary concept, as it’s something used by Uber, Lyft, and a lot of small-scale taxi services. Passengers of air taxis will need to use a booking app to arrange their ride, especially if there aren’t any pilots to speak to.

You’d use the app to arrange a pick-up and drop-off point, and the taxi’s sophisticated AI will work out the most appropriate route to take. As part of this, it’ll also calculate the price.

Skyports

Also known as vertiports, these are essentially the bus stations or taxi ranks of the urban air mobility industry. Main hubs will function like a bus station: you go to one and get in the vehicle. But they’re also where eVTOLs will have their batteries charged or swapped out between rides.

However, it’s likely that – in the early stages at least – eVTOLs will need to land at vertiports too. This will mainly be a regulatory factor and to help the AI plan the most appropriate journey.

Image showing a vertiport on top of an urban building.
A concept for an urban vertiport. Credit: Lilium.

Think of it as being the same for helicopters. While nothing is stopping them from landing anywhere they like, regulations limit them to specific helipads for safety reasons. In the future, we might see eVTOLs be able to land anywhere they like, depending on how the laws take shape.

Redundancy and Safety Features

Granted, safety isn’t specific to an urban air taxi, but it’s a lot more important. You’re generally expected to wear a safety belt in a car, although if you’re driving around a city and have a crash, the chances are low that it’d be a particularly dangerous one (mainly due to the speed).

This obviously isn’t the case if you’re flying. Take the VoloCity for example. Its top speed is 110km/h (around 68mp/h). Traveling this speed in the sky with a massive lithium-ion battery pack underneath you is a recipe for disaster if the system fails.

And this is why eVTOLs have redundancy features. In short, these are failsafes to reduce the chances of a crash happening. If nothing else, the urban air taxi will simply land in a safe place to avoid crashing.

You can check out this video from Volocopter for more information about how eVTOLs will work in practice.

Will Urban Air Taxis Be Popular?

Current industry predictions believe we could see eVTOLs in operation by 2024. Considering no countries have dedicated aerospace regulations for them yet, it could be interesting to see how this plays out.

But will an urban air taxi market be as popular as forecasts predict?

Based on current assessments, no. A 2022 study by Airbus looked at public opinion on the idea of using eVTOLs. It found that 25% of male respondents and 17% of female respondents were likely to use an urban air taxi. The figures for unlikely to use were 17% and 25%, respectively.

Similarly, urban residents were 25% in favor and 15% against. While this is a trend towards adopting the technology, it’s not a massive difference. There are a few reasons for this:

Safety

Safety is the most obvious issue, as it’s difficult to gauge your opinion on something that has yet to be introduced. The same study found that only 24% of respondents from New Zealand considered eVTOLs to be safe. However, this figure rose to 54% for those from Mexico City.

Impact on the Environment

For once, we don’t mean ecological impact (although that is an important consideration). Instead, we mean the effect eVTOLs could have on cities in terms of noise pollution and air congestion.

Again, it’s difficult to gauge this before the technology exists. However, the Airbus study found that only 29% of respondents in Switzerland liked the idea of low-altitude aircraft flying around the city.

Image showing the ascent eVTOL flying over a city.

Cost

We don’t have much information about how much urban air taxi rides will cost. But we do have details on the cost of the infrastructure. One study concluded they could cost up to $400,000 to build and $900,000 to operate annually. Another estimated that a large city could spend up to $12 million a year on its skyports.

These costs will factor into the consumer’s cost, so don’t expect this to be cheap. As such, customers may stick to road-based taxis once the novelty has worn off.

Final Thoughts on Urban Air Taxis

Until we see an urban air taxi in action, much of our opinion is just speculation. How it plays out in the next few years will be interesting, especially whether public opinion shifts after introduction.

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