Uber and Hyundai have announced that they are working on a flying taxi, unveiling the S-A1 at CES 2020. Will their partnership finally make the stuff of sci-fi a reality? Or will regulation and red tape stand in the way?
Back to the Future is perhaps one of the most popular science fiction movies of all time, and it made some bold predictions about future travel back in 1985. Viewers at the time might have dismissed the flying cars and hoverboards for what they were – imagined creations which had no grounding in reality. But it was still exciting to think of what could be in the not too distant future. Blade Runner had similarly captivated audiences a few years before Doc Brown’s DeLorean left its flaming tread-marks in our imagination. Ridley Scott’s vision of a dystopian Los Angeles played its role in the growing fascination with flying cars, too.
It’s now 2020 and we’ve seen a glut of flying car prototypes and concepts in the past few years. It appears that we’re tantalisingly close to urban air mobility. From German start-up Lilium and its eponymous all-electric 300km/h aircraft to the biggest players in the game – namely Uber, Boeing and Google – announcements have been prevalent, promises have been made, deadlines have been set.
However, the failure to deliver on many of these promises has understandably left some feeling disappointed and sceptical. Will flying cars happen after all? Is it all a marketing smoke-screen? Are we still decades away from the first autonomous, flying car?
“Transform the concept of urban transportation”
Uber first came onto the scene in 2016, announcing that it was working on a flying taxi slated to launch in Los Angeles in 2020. They’ve successfully tested and tested again, and now they’re earmarking 2023 as the year their flying taxi debuts. But will the deadline be pushed back again as we edge closer to their proposed launch year? If expert analysts are anything to go by, 2040 seems to be a more realistic year. However, Uber has clearly been toiling over their project for a while now, and recently they breathed new life into a project which appeared to be caught in stasis.
At CES in January, Uber and Hyundai announced their partnership and unveiled a scale-model of their air taxi concept, bringing urban air mobility one step closer to becoming a reality. Uber is the ridesharing and urban mobility leader, and Hyundai are experts in manufacturing vehicles, so this partnership looks like one that might finally get something off the ground – once we move past the marketing noise.
Becoming the first Uber Elevate partner, Hyundai will be responsible for producing and deploying the flying vehicles and Uber, being Uber, will stick to what they know best in providing customer interfaces and connections to ground transportation, generating a buzz and branching out into airspace support with the help of NASA.
“Our vision of Urban Air Mobility will transform the concept of urban transportation,” said Jaiwon Shin, Executive Vice President and Head of Hyundai’s Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Division. “We expect UAM to vitalize urban communities and provide more quality time to people. We are confident that Uber Elevate is the right partner to make this innovative product readily available to as many customers as possible.”
Hyundai and Uber worked together to develop the S-A1 model unveiled at CES in Las Vegas. The Personal Air Vehicle (PAV) utilises electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL), allowing for greater manoeuvrability in what will likely be its home environment, dense urban spaces.
Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate, said: “Hyundai is our first vehicle partner with experience of manufacturing passenger cars on a global scale. We believe Hyundai has the potential to build Uber Air vehicles at rates unseen in the current aerospace industry, producing high quality, reliable aircraft at high volumes to drive down passenger costs per trip. Combining Hyundai’s manufacturing muscle with Uber’s technology platform represents a giant leap forward for launching a vibrant air taxi network in the coming years.”
The two companies are also conceptualising the infrastructure required to embed their flying taxi into the cityscape, namely the S-Hub – a landing and take-off space sitting atop something resembling a shopping mall. Hyundai believes that the S-Hub will take the form of retail space, and in doing so create a “new public space where diverse groups of people can come together.”
“Closer than you think”
In 2017, Uber released a concept video showing Uber Air in action, following up on a white paper they had published a year prior in October 2016. In the video, a woman casts her gaze to a sky scattered with small aircraft. She ascends to the 17th floor of an office building and makes her way through the Skyport. The woman then checks in and boards a four-seater PAV, which takes off vertically and flies high above a highway, which is backed-up as far as the eye can see. The video closes out with the tagline: “Closer than you think”. But is it, really?
Experts are not completely convinced. Those with no stake in the success of companies like Uber will point out that roadblocks will be rife between ideation and take-off. There’s little doubt that, given the finances and resources available to some of these huge companies, the technology is not much of an issue; they’ve already proved that much. The biggest hindrances are, of course, safety and regulation.
“A long and bumpy ride”
Jamie Allan, CEO of commercial consultancy AllanPanthera and UAV specialist, said: “I think the Uber/Hyundai announcement at CES 2020 is more about creating noise to please shareholders and create a bit of PR than it is about bringing flying taxis any closer to reality. The truth is that the regulations in many countries are only just beginning to be shaped to provide the momentum for more Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) UAVs flying around, never mind passenger-carrying vehicles which are a completely different ball game.
“In that respect, once you’ve nailed the reliable and safe operation of everything the end to end journey encompasses, in parallel to meeting all existing, or new, aviation rules and regulations, the necessary infrastructure to accommodate urban air mobility is going to have to be retrofitted into our existing environments, with greenfield developments taking time too. I think that’s one of the main, but less pronounced, barriers to quick adoption.”
Jamie Allan emphasises the point that the planning and implementation of the much-needed infrastructure to get this technology off the ground could alone take several years.
“Imagine it as having a car,” he said, “easy enough to acquire and use, safe and proven tech, the rules of the road are in place, but if you want to build a driveway or a garage you have to go through the local authority planning process. So if you extrapolate that across the country and for the size of operation that urban air mobility requires, it’ll be many years yet before it’s seamlessly integrated into our day to day lives.”
Even then, he said, companies and consumers may still not see evidence of a viable business case, assuming that no accidents or failures occur and that it can be affordable for everyone and not just a luxury.
One thing is certain: if it happens, and it works for everyone, it will radically improve urban mobility. By utilising three-dimensional airspace, Uber, and companies like them, could alleviate ground transport congestion, enabling rapid, reliable transportation between cities and suburbs. What’s more, with an emphasis on green, all-electric vehicles – which is the route most, if not all, appear to be going down – these flying vehicles of tomorrow could play an integral part in the green transportation revolution we so desperately need.
But there is only one way to get there. Jamie Allan said that it is important to “keep innovating, keep making the business case through making the operation as safe and regulated as manned aviation is, and where UAV regulation is heading, and let’s rightly be excited about what the future holds, but just strap yourself in for a long and bumpy ride to get there.”