A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 4, 2020

The Reason Porsche and Toyota Are Investing In Flying Cars

As major global cities become increasingly congested, making travel both frustrating and hazardous, there is growing interest in aeromobility.

Market acceptance will depend on safety considerably more reliable than that of helicopters, but the technological hurdles have largely been overcome. The question is whether urban skies will soon become as congested as their roads. JL

Dan Neil reports in the Wall Street Journal:

As cities, like L.A., grind to a halt in their daily traffic, more affluent commuters, like Kobe, are resorting to helicopters. But helicopters are too big, loud, and expensive to serve a wider audience. And, their safety won’t scale. Delivery drones, electrically powered vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles, air taxis, and personal air vehicles, or PAVs are the flying cars we were promised. (But) this potentially trillion-dollar industry depends on public perceptions of safety. Equipped with machine vision and sense-and-avoid, EVTOLs will be algorithmically constrained and self-stabilize. 
IT’S NOT THAT helicopters aren’t safe; it’s that they are not safe enough.
A crash like the one that killed basketball great Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gigi, and seven others last week is a mercifully rare event. The average annual fatality rate for helicopters was 0.63 per 100,000 flight hours, according to the FAA; and in 2018, 24 accidents resulted in 55 deaths, according to the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team, a volunteer industry-government panel. Those figures include fatalities in risky low-altitude operations, including firefighting and utilities work.
But rare isn’t enough for the aerospace designers, manufacturers and financiers who are surfing the first wave of urban air mobility, such as Uber Elevate—services that plan to democratize daily heli-commuting in cities like Los Angeles and Dallas, using fleets of exotic electric rotor copters to ferry thousands over densely populated areas.
“Pilots and FAA regulators have to live and breathe ‘zero mortality’,” said Dr. Martine Rothblatt who, in addition to being the founder and chair of United Therapeutics, a biotech firm pioneering organ-replacement therapies, is a crazy helicopter pilot. “I love my Bell,” she said.
‘Cheaper than helicopters, eVTOLs could soon provide a zero-emissions alternative to ground-scraping transportation.’
I happened to meet Dr. Rothblatt last November at Ross Perot Jr.’s ranch near Fort Worth. RPJr. was hosting TexasUP, an invite-only conference for players in the multivariately disruptive, going-to-be-huge field of aeromobility—delivery drones, electrically powered vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles, air taxis, and personal air vehicles, or PAVs. I call them aeromobiles.
These are the flying cars we were promised by futurists such as the recently departed Syd Mead and Norman Bel Geddes. By design faster, quieter, and dramatically cheaper per-mile than helicopters, eVTOLs could soon provide superfun, zero-emissions alternatives to ground-scraping transportation.
This potentially trillion-dollar industry will fly or stay grounded—said practically everybody, one way or another—depending on public perceptions of safety. For air mobility to meaningfully replace automobility, Dr. Rothblatt said, the eVTOL industry has to benchmark the safety standards not of cars or helicopters or private planes, but commercial airliners. For reference, the fatality rate for commercial jet travel globally in 2018 was on the order of one death per three million flights, not flight hours. That’s rare.
Kobe’s crash reminded me of this dinner conversation, shared among a table of expert pilots steeped in the culture of risk management. I must say I didn’t appreciate how challenging flying these machines can be. I told a story about landing on the lawn of the Le Beauvallon hotel in Saint-Tropez, last year, in a narrow opening between towering trees. My 22-year-old pilot confided that the approach terrified him because he had no room to move laterally if he was caught in a downdraft. A lot of solemn nodding around the table. At one point Elan Head, a freelance author and helo pilot who was sitting next to me, mentioned that she had lost five friends in five separate accidents. That rocked me.
The UP conference ran over two days, with TED Talk-like presentations every 20 minutes or so, a dronapalooza. Some of the names were familiar. Daimler has partnered with air mobility startup Volocopter to develop a two-seat, 18-rotor air taxi. Porsche is working with Boeing to conceptualize “premium urban air mobility vehicles.” Would a flying 911 Carrera hold any interest for consumers, you think?
Other car makers jumping into the sky include Toyota, which in January announced a $394 million investment in Silicon Valley-based Joby Aviation; and Hyundai, which has partnered with Uber for the S-A1 air taxi concept seen at this year’s CES. These two, as well as the Bell Nexus air taxi have been drafted into Uber Elevate’s first air armada, with limited service beginning 2023.
That roster might lead you to think that flocks of semi-robotic eggbeaters—assuming they are approved by the FAA—will provide an alternative to cars; but they won’t, at least not at first. EVTOLs will first supplant for-hire, passenger-carrying helicopters like Kobe’s.
And that will be good news, safety-wise, this table of seasoned chopper pilots agreed. The eVTOLs being prototyped have a number of inherent advantages over helicopters. Most obviously, helicopters lack redundant backup in case of failure in the rotor or mast assembly. Most urban air mobility vehicles will rely on distributed electric propulsion, i.e., multiple rotors. Such vehicles will be able to survive failure of one or more rotors.
Several air taxis in development are designed to operate with or without a pilot on board, remotely piloted or autonomously. Having uncrewed and autonomous machines in the air will require a new kind of air traffic system to keep track of them. An Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management—think A.I.-enhanced ground control, all-knowing, instantly adjudicating “dynamic spatial deconfliction” without the delay of humans in the loop—would improve situational awareness for crewed operations, as well.
EVTOLs will fly by-wire and will be algorithmically constrained from exceeding the vehicles’ flight “envelope”—its dynamic capacities—and will automatically self-stabilize. They will be equipped with robust machine vision, sense-and-avoid programming and other AI avionics. Helicopters, and their pilots, are much more free to lose control.
The connection to cars comes to this: As cities, like L.A., grind to a halt in their own daily traffic, more affluent commuters, like Kobe, are resorting to helicopters. But helicopters are too big, too loud, and too expensive to serve a wider audience. And, most of all, their safety won’t scale. Fortunately, there will soon be a better way to fly.


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