Flying taxis sound like something from the futuristic cartoons of our childhood, but they are edging nearer to becoming a commonplace reality.
Both ride-hailing app Uber and craft manufacturer Boeing are developing eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) flying taxis. Reports from analysts Frost & Sullivan suggest there will be 430,000 flying taxis globally within the next two decades. The autonomous urban aircraft market could be worth $1.5 trillion by 2040, according to a Morgan Stanley Research study.
But my question is, are passengers ready? There are several hurdles, in my opinion, before airborne cabs become a familiar sight.
What might the cost be? Would people be willing to pay the true cost, and how would the initial charges be compared to those for land-based transport? According to Flying magazine, air taxis are expensive to build, with estimated prices per unit ranging from $1 million to $3 million.
And the infrastructure is a long way off. People would probably need to visit a special terminal to use an ‘air taxi’, which suggests a network of “vertiports” is required – think of a network akin to Dubai Metro or a national rail system. Despite this, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) has already suggested it sees air taxis priced around the same mark as a limousine service.
eVTOL aircraft developers are engaged in a very capital-intensive space, trying to simultaneously develop the craft themselves, the infrastructure, and the end-user software.
Meanwhile, a recent announcement declared that up to 35 eVTOL (electric Vertical Take Off and Landing) crafts will be made available at the Atlantis Hotel, Palm Jumeirah, from 2026, enabling guests to enjoy short “tourist” flights from the iconic hotel. This small-scale operation may well bolster the sector, creating more interest and a definite proof-of-concept.
How long before the new wave of flying taxis has been tested to the most rigorous levels that we can entirely trust them? If we compare the statistics of commercial airline flights, they will arguably be safer than travelling by conventional car!
But like anything new, some will be fearful, and as a nascent sector, regulations will take a while to catch up with the pace of development. It’s fantastic to see Dubai is already taking a lead in rules, regulations and management of airspace, which will go a long way to regulate the sector, assuage passenger fears, and deliver a reliable service.
Autonomy versus manned
The adoption of citywide airborne travel as part of our daily routines would be a significant leap in itself, but couple this with the prospect of pilotless vehicles and it’s easy to see how more risk-averse passengers could be put off. Are people really ready to put their trust in small, unmanned aircraft?
The short answer is ‘yes’ – providing implementation and education are handled in the right way. In my opinion, Dubai is ideally placed to persuade taxi passengers to take to the sky.
Both the city and the UAE as a whole continue to operate at the forefront of smart automation, with advanced street mapping well underway and driverless cabs set to hit local roads next year. Moreover, it’s not as though fully autonomous, driverless tech is new to UAE residents. How many of us think twice about taking a ride on Dubai Metro?
While I’m sure that flying taxis will initially feature pilots – if only in a supervisory capacity – I doubt it will take long for passengers to become accustomed to autonomous flight. After all, safety targets in Dubai’s emerging air taxi regulations are set as high as those used in commercial aviation, and there are rules for those controlling the unmanned craft to ensure good management of airspace.
Dubai’s ‘Sky Dome’ project – backed by laws released in 2020 – lays out licensing, inspection, permits, and landing and take-off guidelines, laying down a master plan for a whole new infrastructure built around UAVs and eVTOL craft.
Of course, safety will also remain a priority over the longer term. How will we trust that our aerial transport is safe? What about other users? Will we have to learn a new set of rules regarding safe air transport alongside the rules of the road? Answering these questions will take research, time, and effort.
But safety is at the heart of Dubai’s emerging rules and regulations regarding the sector. The 2020 law promises regular craft inspections and makes provision for emergency landing sites across the city.
Going hand-in-hand with the Dubai Sky Dome concept is Dubai Shield, a system designed to address safety and security risks faced by airspace drone activity. Dubai Shield will detect and track drones and take necessary countermeasures, if required, in cooperation with relevant government and security authorities.
Who will regulate this new influx of traffic in the air? How will it be regulated? How will speed limits be maintained? What about flying into private or restricted airspace? As mentioned above, the national regulator, the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), has developed its very own programme of electric air vehicle regulatory development, after assessing US and EU regulations.
Dubai’s leadership will undoubtedly lead to it becoming an early adopter of UAVs and air taxis – and it will not allow people fly without first assuring maximum safety, security, and approval.
Regulations must cover a wide variety of subjects and issues, from vehicle safety, airworthiness, and traffic control to noise pollution, operator certification, and software security.
While technology is gradually coming of age, I think we humans still have a long way to go – and a lot to learn about this exciting new way of travelling.
I, for one, look forward to hailing a cab from my roof.