How to solve the traffic-jam blues: flying cars

29 November 2019 - 07:40 By Denis Droppa
Uber is building the future of ridesharing with an air taxi to be commercialised in 2023. Picture: SUPPLIED
Uber is building the future of ridesharing with an air taxi to be commercialised in 2023. Picture: SUPPLIED

Here we are in 2019, so where are all the flying cars?

Decades ago sci-fi books and movies got us starry-eyed with predictions of a transport utopia in the year 2000 (or thereabouts) where, instead of being stuck in gridlocked traffic we’d be soaring around in gravity-defying vehicles like the flying DeLorean in Back To The Future 2.

Well, it’s almost 2020 and here we are still stewing in traffic jams for hours a day, our morale drained by minibus taxis overtaking in the emergency lane and metro officers turning a blind eye.

Cape Town drivers spend the equivalent of seven days a year stuck in traffic, with Pretoria drivers not far behind on six days and Joburg drivers on five days, according to the Inrix Global Traffic Scorecard.

That works out to about R80bn of lost productivity a year, according to Victor Radebe, Founder and Executive Director of Mobility Centre for Africa, who adds that a car lies idle 95% of the time and when it is travelling it carries just one passenger 90% of the time.

It’s clear that ride sharing and improved public transport will need to form the backbone of mass transport solutions as a fast-growing population puts ever more strain on roads. But what about those aforementioned flying cars?

FLYING-CAR PROTOTYPES HAVE BEEN IN THE TESTING AND DEVELOPMENT PHASE FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS

The sci-fi may have been over-ambitious about the timing, but it did get it right in terms of vehicles getting airborne, and those days will be upon us in the not-too-distant future. Thanks to autonomous technology and drones, residents of highly populated cities could be hailing their first flying taxis in as little as a decade.

Flying-car prototypes have been in the testing and development phase for a number of years but they required a runway.

Drone-type flying cars will have vertical-take-off-and-lift (VTOL) capability just like helicopters — meaning they can land just about anywhere. They will also be electrically-powered to minimise noise and pollution, and they will also eventually be able to fly themselves. A number of companies are working on self-flying taxis to provide air taxi services in urban areas, aimed at quick point-to-point transport in cities to bypass traffic.

Ride-hailing firm Uber plans to offer commercial fleets of small VTOL aircraft in Los Angeles and Dallas as early as 2023 with its Uber Elevate service, before expanding to its first international market in Melbourne.

Uber’s airborne cars will carry four passengers and one pilot — the latter a necessary requirement as autonomous technology still needs a few “eureka” moments before it’s market ready.

The Daimler-supported Volocopter project has built a prototype that can transport two adults. Picture: SUPPLIED
The Daimler-supported Volocopter project has built a prototype that can transport two adults. Picture: SUPPLIED

There’s also the issue of air traffic management and legislation before we set loose flying cars in the skies. Uber has signed Space Act Agreements with Nasa to investigate how to ensure that urban air traffic is managed safely and efficiently.

However, within the next decade or two you’ll be able to order an aerial ride as easily as you do an Uber car now.

Boeing is working with Porsche to develop an electric flying car to transport people in urban settings. The plane maker recently staged a test flight of a prototype that could accommodate up to four passengers and fly up to 80km. Porsche believes this kind of air travel would pick up in popularity after 2025.

In Europe, flying taxis got a step closer to reality when a Volocopter VTOL prototype was demonstrated at Daimler’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany in September.

The German startup aims to have autonomous air taxis in the sky within a few years and is financially supported by Daimler and Chinese motor firm Geely.

Capable of transporting two adults, the prototype Volocopter uses 18 electrically-powered rotors and has a range of 27km and top speed of 100km/h.

Florian Reuter, CEO of Volocopter, said: “Our Volocopter air taxis open up a completely new dimension in urban mobility. They fly safely, quietly and are fast approaching the implementation stage. Volocopter air taxis are able to ease traffic congestion in major cities around the world.”

Daimler chairman Ola Källenius, who was present at the Volocopter demonstration at the Mercedes-Benz museum, said: “Our partner Volocopter shows how an air taxi is turning the dream of driving into the dream of flying”.

It won’t necessarily be a dream for the well-heeled few either. Initially yes, but Uber Elevate’s long term goal is to be cheaper than the cost of driving. In the US, the current cost of running a car — excluding the purchase price — is 49c (R7.20) per mile (including fuel, parking, insurance, repairs etc).

Using Uber Elevate will cost about R84 a mile when it launches next year but its ultimate goal is to reduce it to R6.50 or less per mile, bringing it into the realm of affordable mass transport.

To handle its fleet of flying taxis, Uber Elevate aims to establish a network of Skyports that can eventually handle up to 1,000 landings per hour.

X