You’d be forgiven for thinking that the concept of a flying taxi is simply too futuristic and fantastical to entertain at this point in time. Yes, autonomous vehicles (AVs) and electric drivetrains are becoming a reality, but it’ll surely still be a while before we start zipping about in flying taxis. How close can any company be to actually offering a flying taxi service?
The answer to this is: closer than you think. While the taxi industry won’t be transformed overnight, some large companies with very deep pockets are investing in the concept of flying taxis, so it would be a mistake to dismiss the idea completely.
Uber in the Air
A company investing heavily in flying taxis is one that taxi operators are undoubtedly very familiar with: Uber. The ridesharing startup has been a massive disruptor in the taxi industry, and if all the hype and press releases are to be believed, it’s only getting started.
Uber is not only investing heavily in self-driving cars and partnering with some of the largest automakers in the world, it also seems utterly determined to get into the flying taxi business. Its aerial offering will, quite predictably, be called UberAIR, and will make use of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. While you couldn’t quite call these little aircraft “flying cars”, they do nevertheless look very well-suited to the job of moving people around a congested city. The company has partnered with Karem, Embraer, Pipistrel, Bell and Aurora Flight Sciences (which is a subsidiary of Boeing) for the development of its aircraft.
The most astonishing thing about the whole endeavour is that Uber plans to launch UberAIR in the very near future. It wants to operate what it calls “demonstrator flights” by 2020 and launch the full commercial operation by 2023. UberAIR will launch in Dallas, Los Angeles and a third international city that’s still to be decided.
The Google of Flying Taxis
Another big name that’s taken an interest in the idea of flying taxis is Larry Page, co-founder of Google. Page has launched a company called Kitty Hawk—named after the beach in North Carolina where the Wright brothers first took to the air—that’s building autonomous flying taxis capable of transporting two people at around 180km/h. The aircraft is a small plane-helicopter-drone hybrid, called the Cora, that can take off vertically but also has a propeller at the rear for increased speed.
It’s taken Kitty Hawk around eight years to create the Cora, but the aircraft is now ready to undergo the regulatory approval process, which it’ll do in New Zealand. “After eight years of tackling some of the biggest challenges in aviation, that dream is one step closer,” the Kitty Hawk website reads. “Cora isn’t just about flying. Cora is about the time you could save soaring over traffic. The people you could visit. The moments that move you.”
The Dream of Flight
The possibility of hailing a flying taxi via an app and soaring above city streets holds obvious appeal. While it’s hard to imagine that this will become a common occurrence in the next year or two, some big names are clearly determined to make the dream a reality. It’s not only Kitty Hawk and UberAIR making strides in the field. Dubai has already had its first test flight of an unmanned vehicle over the city, and even Rolls-Royce has decided that it wants to build a flying taxi—and it wants to do it by the early 2020s.
The taxi industry is obviously no stranger to competition—and in the greater scheme of things the rise of flying taxis can seem like the least of taxi operators’ worries—but it would be a mistake to dismiss any possible disruption as too fantastical, especially when big companies are already investing millions and looking to launch within the next few years. After all, disruption often comes not from the competitors you know well, but from unexpected innovations lurking in the wings.
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Image: Pickard Chilton / Arup