Air Taxis Are Finally Taking Off, but Are They Right for Urban Travel?

Hold on to your butts, it's gonna be a self-piloted, under-regulated ride.

Few emerging technologies capture that mid-1950s sci-fi vibe as much as air taxis. But while skeptics still remain, included noted 50s sci-fi enthusiast Elon Musk — flying taxi concepts are taking off left and right. Most recently, the aerospace giant Boeing released footage from the first successful test flight of their new air taxi. Hold on to your butts, it’s gonna be a self-piloted, under-regulated ride. And it might be here sooner than you’d think.

In a video released yesterday, Boeing revealed that their autonomous “Passenger Air Vehicle” (PAV), an air taxi prototype, had successfully completed a controlled takeoff, hover and landing at their testing facilities in Manassas, Virginia on Tuesday. The test marked the arrival of the latest competitor in the race to perfect a scalable air taxi model. As you can see in the above video, the Boeing Air Taxi’s first flight was brief, but it still offers the potential to be ground-breaking.

A flying taxi concept developed by the Russian startup Bartini, which launched last summer. 


Why We May Need Air Taxis

There’s a big reason why the idea gets so much investment, despite also being something of a parody at times (what, really, differs a flying car or taxi from, say, a small plane?) But the fact is, getting around cities is a problem that’s already bad, and it’s set to get much, much worse in the coming century. It’s little wonder, then, that the concept of short-distance air travel generates so much excitement.

The urban population boom is also just getting started. Current estimates suggest 68 percent of us will reside in cities by 2050, and those cities are going to be big. By 2100, there will be at least 10 cities that are roughly twice the size of the world’s largest city now, Shanghai. Nigeria’s Lagos is projected to hit 88.3 million residents by 2100. And you’re worried about a few falling car parts?

Most of the extant concepts, including Boeing’s, have relied on electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) models, which marry elements of airplanes and helicopters to create a vehicle that promises lower emissions, quieter take-offs and landings, and the ability to navigate within physically tight, urban settings.

The majority of the 120+ air taxi concepts currently in the market are just that - concepts. A handful of models have made the jump to functioning prototypes, and should Boeing’s PAV pass through the next round of testing, which focuses the transition phase between vertical and forward-flight modes — historically, the biggest engineering hurdle eVTOL vehicles face — it will arguably be the most promising air tax model to grace the skies.

Flying taxis may one day be an important part of urban infrastructure, though Uber's foray into the area was short-lived. 


As with autonomous driving, mastering the technology is also only half the battle. Busier skies and increased air traffic will require an extensive overhauling of the current infrastructure. Under-regulation could quickly lead to a rise in noise and air pollution. Carports — er, “skyports” — would need to be built in order to house and charge air taxi fleets. And then there’s the issue of convincing people to get into tiny, self-piloted planes flying, very fast, over heavily populated areas.

Elon Musk is famously not a fan of air taxis, though his apprehensions seem to be more focused on the prospect of air taxis blowing things away, rather than the regulatory issues. But Musk’s urban mobility plan, which relies on the creation of underground tunnels for his HyperLoop train, is facing several logistical challenges of its own — the major one being cost.

So when can you, as an average human person, hail an air taxi? Potentially within the next decade. But by time this technology is actually scalable for urban areas, there’s a good chance we’ll all be zooming around our poor, flooded cities on boats anyway.

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