The Consumer Electronics Expo rarely fails to bring out new waves of interesting technology with each yearly showing and 2019 was no exception. Among the consumer-grade devices and prototype hype was a future-forward example of transport straight out of The Jetsons, but the realities of bringing flying taxis stateside is a long road to walk before we can fly (Pictured: Bell Nexus Air Taxi – Source).
With a slowly-rising buzz creeping into the public lexicon over the past few years, it’s no big surprise that CES hosted Bell Nexus’ air taxi prototype that they hope will be a realistic look at how flying vehicles of the future will be designed and handled. Popular science fiction has pitched the idea of flying vehicles time and time again, but stepping down to autonomous quad-blade copters is a much more realistic step towards the future.
Yet the unfortunate realities of just how feasible these vehicles are does put a damper on the excitement of flying through a daily commute in a literal sense. As of this month we’ve only had a small handful of companies capable of producing such air taxis unveil much more than production art. Boeing is one of the few aerospace companies with the finances and manpower to produce such a vehicle and their first autonomous flight came at the end of January 2019. Compare this unveiling to the first autonomous vehicle trip taking place nine years ago and you’ve got a long time to wait before technology catches up to our expectations.
There’s little chance air taxis will overtake existing rideshare programs any time soon and it’s not just a case of technology. As it stands, civilian airspace and flight laws are drastically different than driving laws and the idea of opening up the air to thousands upon thousands of flying vehicles without regards to safety or air traffic is a laughable concept at best. On the other hand, expecting daily commuters to take and pass flight school just to let an automated vehicle fly them to work in the morning seems just as ridiculous a concept. Legally, self-driving vehicles in general have a long way to go and self-governed flight programs haven’t even begun making the rounds.
Even if the legal issues are cleared up quickly and laws are codified within the next few years, the next hurdle of just where to put all of these new air vehicles becomes a wider problem to solve. There’s not exactly room on the Strip to plop down hundreds of self-piloting helicopters and the alternative of sending them droning about on their own once they’ve dropped someone off at a casino seems dubious at best. There simply aren’t enough spaces capable of handling air traffic and repeated takeoffs or landings to expect air taxis to slide into nearly any city without serious restructuring.
If a building accepts only a few air taxis, even a hyper-efficient takeoff sequence of five minutes will limit twelve takeoffs or landings per pad in an hour, which means a lot of lost real estate to a relatively inefficient method of transport when compared to existing highway systems.
All of these issues pale in comparison to safety concerns. Helicopters themselves aren’t inherently unsafe when compared to other air vehicles. The real issue is just how fatal an air vehicle crash is likely to be when compared to a land craft crashing. No number of airbags can stop the effects of a hunk of metal falling out of the sky and nailing the side of a building. On the upside, a helicopter or air taxi crash is going to be less likely to lead to a fatality than other forms of aircraft, but it’s something of a small comfort.
We’re unlikely to see the proliferation of air taxis within the next few years, but expect more hopeful news to bubble up as the months go by. Just remember how many landing pads will have to be constructed before taking an air taxi is anything more than a distant dream.