Aerial vehicles of the eVTOL kind (vertical takeoff and landing, electrically propelled) are hot. Question is if city councils and regulatory authorities will facilitate this exciting, new transit mode. They might where eVTOLs pose the least risk and hindrance, typically over a low-density built area. Reality is that there’s where eVTOLs are not that relevant. Highly populated urban sprawl with a congested road infrastructure, where they do matter, they will not help to substantially alleviate ground traffic, yet noise levels and safety/traffic control issues will be scrutinized even more. Perhaps the eVTOL stands a better chance if it adapts itself to what’s already there.
Urban Air Mobility — “It’s the logistics stupid”
When I attended the 5th Transformative Flight conference last year in San Francisco, hosted by the American Helicopter Society and NASA Ames, there happened to be two guest speakers who warned the attendees not to dismiss the obvious in the quest for what is considered THE next big thing in personal mobility: aerial vehicles. The first was an U.S. Air Force colonel who quoted former U.S. President and WW2 allied forces supreme commander Dwight Eisenhower, that battles are won or lost because of logistics. I was the other. My logistical concerns formed the basis for my presentation “Seamless 2D and 3D transit”.
Lately, it seems like high-tech thinking and tinkering has completely taken over from common sense. At first glance not that surprising, since pinnacle technology always tends to challenge vested frames of mind, and perhaps not that disturbing if it weren’t for the huge sums of money involved. Best example is that tens of billions of dollars have been spent on developing vehicle autonomy. Fortune in fact, predicts a cascading, negative effect when the ‘wishful engineering’ as plenty of robotics experts qualify this quest, doesn’t pan out according to what we were told to believe. Full autonomy for road vehicles may well take decades. Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder, Waymo CEO John Krafcik and Toyota have all stated that cars will probably never be able to drive autonomously in all conditions.
Same with aerial vehicles and eVTOLs. The focus is that much concentrated on the engineering, that the logistical aspects of air mobility are pretty much being overlooked. Simply said, the transit of people and goods, whether it is road-based or through the air, not only should bring us to contemplate which transport mode suits best, but it has also implications how to accommodate and link inbound and outgoing traffic. What drives off, needs to arrive; what takes off, will eventually land. Now, the denser the built environment, the bigger the traffic problems on the ground, the higher the potential demand for air taxis — that’s the easy part of the story. However, we tend to forget that the more populated the area is, the more expensive the real estate will be to facilitate these in- and outgoing movements. Fact is that you will need a lot of these so-called vertiports strategically spaced away from each other, to have a service of any significance. The SF-flavored artist impressions of dedicated vertiports used in several pitches (Uber’s a.o.) actually rule out the possibility of affordable, ubiquitously available air-ride hailing. Better make those hubs as space-efficient as possible, preferably integrate them with other economic functions, instead of building them all-new.
Above a picture of what I have in mind. Shopping malls are usually located at strategic places, meant to cater to a precisely defined area. Many of them feature large flat roof surfaces. Those can be used to park cars and to install solar panels (to recharge the EVs and eVTOLs). They may well be subject to a complete overhaul altogether. Nearly every shopping center is destined to decline at some point. There’s a reason why the term ‘dead mall’ has become widespread. Since zero-emission, therefore electric propulsion is the thing to aim for, weight is of paramount importance. This immediately excludes the two-in-one contraptions like the ones Terrafugia has been working on for over a decade. You always carry the weight of the other component with you. But you might say that there is a fundamental flaw in Uber’s business model too. The arrival and departure of road and air taxis, incl. the boarding and unboarding of passengers, requires a lot of space.
Instead of swapping EVs and eVTOLs, better use a passenger compartment which is lowered onto a chassis for driving around and airlifted when you want to fly to your destination. Like the shipping or intermodal container which can be hoisted onto a sea ship, barge, train or truck, a passenger cabin can be made to reach its destination by road or through the air. A rare opportunity to provide seamless, intermodal transit — something which is not feasible between other passenger transportation modalities (train, bus or passenger plane). Logistically, ‘2D and 3D’ transit is a much tighter concept, however more complex to engineer. Airbus already presented such a system; there is (considerable) room for improvement though.
There are other advantages/benefits to a modular surface/air mobility system. Passengers remain seated. Safety authorities may well object to people crisscrossing parking and landing decks (which is the case with separate road and air vehicles). The road module (car) is always at your disposal, in case you own it. You are not dependent on a ride-hail provider or a vertiport having car parking. Then again, ‘modular’ lends itself perfectly for operating by a provider (TNC). While the road module is driving you around (autonomously), the aerial module’s batteries can either be recharged or the aerial module can perform freight hauling duties (also autonomously). Best of all perhaps, air mobility forms a great excuse to come up with a road module that tackles the issues carmakers haven’t yet properly: energy- and space efficiency, zero emissions, self-driving.
Concluding, it is safe to say that logistics and real estate determine bottom-line economics of any urban air mobility system to a very large extent. Having them work together will most definitely form the difference between profitability and yet another losing ride-hail proposition.
Ralph Panhuyzen was managing director of Amsterdam Westpoint, a major multimodal (shipping, trucking, rail) hub for warehousing, distribution and freight forwarding, located in the Netherlands. He is the author of books on auto-mobility and the Port of Rotterdam, and the auctor intellectualis of smart-for-three.com — a leaner, greener, all-in approach to personal mobility, for which he received recognition at NAIAS (Detroit Auto Show). Panhuyzen resides in the Netherlands, is a member of the AHS. He can be reached at @NextGenEV