Ride-sharing has disrupted transportation in many cities, and not always for the better. Some surveys show services like Uber and Lyft actually add to the congestion in urban areas, with more cars on the road competing for the same amount of road space.
To solve the problem, many are looking to the skies. After Ehang captivated CES two years ago with its passenger drone, Uber put a stake in the clouds by publishing a white paper on airborne mobility solutions — essentially air taxis — in 2017.
Most famously, Dubai is working with EHang to develop a drone taxi service to take people (and a couple of pieces of luggage) along various fixed routes within the city.
Now things are heating up Stateside as well. At CES 2018, Bell Helicopter became the first helicopter company to exhibit at CES, debuting its concept of an air taxi. The four-person aircraft is meant to fly people between two points on fixed routes — say from a parking garage to an airport — and, though it can be flown by a pilot, is designed with autonomy in mind.
Bad news first: Bell only showed off a VR simulator of the concept, and it didn't discuss what propulsion its air taxi would use, although it did say the aircraft would take off and land vertically, then alter its configuration to fly more like a plane, similar to the Project Wing drones developed by Alphabet's X (formerly Google X).
The good news is the simulation was pretty convincing. It first takes you through a possible "vertiport" — in this case, a parking garage where the aircraft can take off from vertically. Then I got a ride in the cab of Bell's beast, which was a real mock-up, at least. In each seat was an HTC Vive, and after putting one on, I was soon taking a virtual ride over the skyline to the local airport.
While in flight, the simulation had a few sample user experiences, showing what it would be like to get news highlights, view a map, take a FaceTime call, and a couple of other things. In a few minutes, the aircraft landed at a dedicated heliport at the airport, and showed a message that I had saved 45 minutes over taking a car.
Optimistic? Probably. Compelling? Definitely. That's probably why Uber is so interested and is partnering with Bell and others to make the vision — an affordable vision, importantly — a reality. When? Sometime if the 2020s, if we're lucky, and that's only if a host of problems are solved.
First and foremost, noise. Heliports are already a target of communities because of the noise pollution they generate, and putting dozens (if not hundreds) of more aircraft in city skies seems like a recipe for cacophony. Bell says it's well aware of this issue and is building its aircraft to be as quiet as possible. But without a real test, or even knowledge about the propulsion system, it's impossible to know.
Then there's the safety factor. To the pessimistic, every one of those passenger drones is a potential disaster waiting to happen, and it would take only one crash to ground a service, if not the entire concept. Again, Bell knows this, too, designing its craft as a "multi-failure" system, so that if one or more systems fail, others can kick in to at least prevent the worst from occurring.
To many, though, the thought of jumping across town and back in minutes instead of hours is just too great to pass up. Uber for the skies may happen sooner than we thought.