CES 2019 Panel:
“Flying Taxis. Build Them, But Will They Come?”
By Jim Sherman
Once again, the consumer technology world put its focus on Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the world’s largest assembly of the latest and greatest technology — from phones and TVs, to drones, cars and, yes even VTOL aircraft and a yacht. This year, the Consumer Technology Association assembled some exciting conference sessions on mobility and transportation.
The CES session, “Flying Taxis. Build Them, But Will They Come?,” featured some big names in the eVTOL landscape – Uber and EmbraerX. This session, a Deloitte-organized panel discussing urban air mobility, focused on air taxis and their place in the UAM future. The panel featured Tom Prevot of Uber Elevate; David Rottblatt of EmbraerX; Julia Richman, the CIO of the City of Boulder, Colorado; and Robin Lineberger and Chris Metts of Deloitte.
During this first-ever panel discussion on eVTOL at CES, held on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, the question was asked about what has changed that makes this discussion relevant at this time. Helicopters have been around for many years and have not been accepted as a local taxi service for various reasons, including noise and cost. Prevot suggested that these new concepts enable designs that were not feasible with a classic single/dual engine design. The use of electric motors allows redundant design, manage weight distribution, mitigate noise, and enable aero-efficient design for longer-distance travel. Helicopters have struggled to gain social acceptance in many areas because of the noise. Multi-rotor designs allow the designer to address the noise issues. Electric drives reduce the amount of maintenance, especially heavy maintenance requirements to reduce the overall operating costs and allow the distribution of the propulsion systems outside the center of the vehicle allowing a more inviting passenger space. Ultimately, Prevot indicated that rapid scaling will be important to achieve affordability. A modernized air traffic management system for urban air mobility and, especially unmanned systems, needs new approaches to management.
Rottblatt took a different view of the progress that is being achieved. He suggested that the maturation of higher density batteries, power electronics and rotating machines have really enabled the development of purpose-built vehicles, not just air vehicles, but all vehicles. Decoupling of the power source from the delivery mechanism frees designers to consider architectures based on design priorities, such as noise mitigation, takeoff efficiency, in-flight efficiency or other design criteria. While noise is a consideration, there are many other issues that each individual city will cite that need to be addressed, and that may drive changes to a vehicle for specific for that location. If efficiency is the priority, designs that optimize around fuel or electric consumption can be prioritized. Finally, Rottblatt remarked that “one day, driving will be a novel thing again.”
The discussion then turned to ridesharing and what the vision for these vehicle markets will be. Prevot was very clear that the Uber vehicles will be targeted at a fleet-ownership model, not individual ownership. The sell price combined with the operating costs and insurance will put individual ownership at a disadvantage. In addition, some form of pilot’s license is likely to be required to operate these vehicles. Richman described her daily commute from Denver to Boulder, which is remarkably like many typical commutes, and commented that adding the air taxi as a part of the commute still doesn’t solve the last mile problem, just the speed of the commute. Therefore, a combination of commute, ride-share, and air taxi makes great sense and would be welcomed by many, although her expectation is that would not necessarily become a daily commuting option, but an on-demand option.
Chris Metts of Deloitte highlighted that the FAA cultural norms around piloting need to change and modernize, especially with the significant improvement in controls that allow less skilled pilots. He also highlighted the environmental benefits from the technology as well, such as reduced ground congestion. He also pointed out that rural environments would benefit from vehicles in this class for traveling to difficult-to-access areas, or for commercial use in powerline, pipeline, railway and bridge inspections. There needs be a parallel with how the commercial unmanned system programs and traffic management have been implemented.
Ultimately, EmbraerX emphasized, each stakeholder for each application must be involved from the very beginning or the risk of failure increases. Stakeholders must have the commitment to success and pull the requirements and solutions without having industry push a solution. A great example is the airspace construction. Currently, FAA-controlled airspace focuses on commercial transport and provides provisions for general, business, unmanned, and agricultural aviation outside of the tightly controlled rules-based areas. Once this form of transportation becomes viable and begins to scale, the management of this airspace will need to have been addressed, with processes and rules put in place to be successful. How will we manage the intersection of the ground and air traffic?
The NASA Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) project has shown to be very effective with managing large numbers of vehicles and can be scaled to handle the expected traffic for many years. The industry and industry associations are working to incorporate this technology with the FAA. The expectation is that the FAA will continue to manage the lower airspace and will continue to rely on technology and pilots to follow the guidelines to maintain the safety levels required. Implementation of the UTM algorithms are anticipated to be implemented to facilitate this traffic.
For the Uber Elevate model, all decisions will still be made on the ground, and prior to the actual flight. Of course, contingencies will be provided to ensure safe routing and delivery. In the beginning, pilots will oversee each flight, and trip data will be collected to validate the system’s operation and optimize future flights, and ultimately used to enable pilot-less travel. Uber does not expect to make step-changes with the Elevate model, but a phased-approach where levels of automation are increased only when a certain amount of trust in the systems is established. Uber emphasized that it is bought into this program, from the highest levels, and will work with each stakeholder to ensure each flight safe and efficient.
While there are still some significant challenges to solve, eVTOL “Flying Taxis” are being built and people will use them in the promising future of Urban Air Mobility.