Cities can have flying cars if they start working on infrastructure today
Nearly everyone knows the pain of sitting in traffic watching valuable minutes tick by. Just as bad is the maddening search for a parking spot, or even just a safe place to hop out of the backseat of an Uber on a dense, buzzing city street.
For emergency medical providers, these headaches can literally mean life or death. Who among us hasn’t stared up at the sky behind a sea of red taillights, wishing we could rise above the gridlock and get to whatever corner of the city in a fraction of the time?
The truth is, flying cars are a reality. The aviation technology exists and early-stage regulatory review is underway in both the U.S. House and the Senate to bring eVTOLs — electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles — to market.
What doesn’t exist is a place to land them. The promise of urban air mobility is the promise of superlative convenience — a trip to the airport that would regularly take 90 minutes door-to-door whittled down to 10. For this promise to be realized, eVTOL landing points must be as accessible as taxi lines — think a five-minute walk (or one-minute elevator ride) from your office.
And sure, we’ve seen office buildings and hospitals on the outer edges of cities build heliports on their roofs. But the truth is, helicopters’ external rotors make them too noisy and too dangerous to land in tight spaces. Heliports have to be on the outer borders of cities — they need the extra space for safety (and noise) concerns.
Urban flight today
I have over 25 years of experience as a helicopter pilot. I know that urban air travel is nothing new. However, noise ordinances, space constraints and safety measures needed to make commercial helicopter flights viable have largely limited their use.
Existing VTOLs are much better designed for repeated commercial use, but they still don’t solve for noise. Most importantly, they do not eliminate the risks associated with external moving mechanical components and large wingspans.
Instead of looking to airports as the model for advanced air mobility, we should look to metro hubs that are accessible to everyone, with multiple departures and arrivals per day.
These VTOLs also require far more space for takeoff and landing — which means intracity travel won’t be feasible without massive infrastructure investments, a fact pointed out by countless urban air mobility analysts and even folks at NASA. For it to work, cities would have to turn a huge percentage of their rooftops into miniairports, which would require years of disruption.
That isn’t the only option, though. Engineers are developing compact VTOLs with the agility of a helicopter and the size and relative safety (and interior machinery) of a car. These vehicles have the best chance to prove the viability of VTOLs. Imagine an ambulance arriving at the scene of an accident via air — landing in a parking-spot-sized space directly next to the accident — and swiftly moving the injured to a hospital in another part of the city.
Instead of looking to airports as the model for advanced air mobility, we should look to metro hubs that are accessible to everyone, with multiple departures and arrivals per day. However, this kind of passenger turnover only works at scale if there are numerous eVTOLs coming and going — just like a train station. This just isn’t feasible unless most of those eVTOLS are smaller than a passenger van.
Consider the ground, not just the skyline
Decades from now, city infrastructure will look very different. Vertiports within the city that can accommodate VTOLs of all sizes and distance capabilities will be commonplace in the modern metropolis. But these train stations for the sky require enormous vision and forward thinking on the part of city planners, civil engineers, policymakers and politicians, as well as citizens demanding alternative forms of transportation.
Current prototypes require dramatic resurfacing of the city’s skyline for safe takeoff and landing at scale, but it does not have to be this way. The street infrastructure required to bring VTOLs to city dwellers is too often overlooked.
Cities need to consider the spaces and cases for VTOLs. We need to think about the city as we know it now — how can we design a vehicle that fits naturally within the environment that already exists? Is there space to create a vehicle that coexists with the city’s people as well as its birds? One quiet enough that anyone would welcome on their apartment rooftop?
Big vision, small footprint
A smaller eVTOL isn’t just more agile and safer in dense spaces, it also allows for more vehicles per square foot, more flights per hour, and more people moved across town per day in a more affordable way.
Before we can build the vertiport of the future, we must first use what already exists today to prove the case for urban air mobility. We need to be deliberate in matching the technology to the infrastructure that city dwellers know and expect, not vice versa. This means an eco-friendly VTOL that can land not just on helipads, piers and parking lots, but literally anywhere an SUV might fit.
Size alone is not enough. We must think about alternative fuel sources. Batteries are one, but they’re also inefficient, and the ecological impact of battery production, storage and disposal make them far from perfect. Some VTOL developers have proposed hydrogen as a fuel source; I welcome this and encourage more investment toward innovation in hydrogen-powered aviation. The larger commercial aviation market is already taking big steps toward hydrogen-fueled airliners, and VTOL developers have no excuse not to do the same.
Finally, we have to start with a truly efficient VTOL that can have the biggest impact in the shortest time frame, and where time is of the essence: Emergency services. The promise of flying cars to improve people’s lives must be made apparent and available in the most essential of use cases first.
This will not only make an immediate, positive impact, it will also help pave the way for acceptance, infrastructure and large-scale commercialization for VTOLs of every size and use case. Indeed, it will realize the dream of the flying car.