Post Modern is a podcast thinking through the future of technology, and today’s episode is about flying cars.
Listen to the episode above or read the transcript below.
Today’s episode is about flying cars, that fantasy of the future that is quickly becoming a reality in the present.
Throughout history, many companies have tried and failed to get the flying car off the ground, but advances in electric and autonomous technology have brought the idea to the forefront. Two companies, in particular, Joby and Archer Aviation, are the first to hit commercialization with their electric vertical take-off and landing craft (also called eVTOLs).
The plan is to offer ride-sharing services via the sky, connecting satellite cities to larger metropolitan hubs. Joby has even penned a deal with Delta to provide ridesharing routes between cities and airports—LA to LAX, for instance, or Manhattan to JFK. Delta plans to invest more than $260 million in the project.
“In Utah, that could look like someone who’s flying out of Salt Lake City International, who might be able to board an eVTOL in Brigham City, Logan. or Nephi, getting to the airport without having to worry about that long trip in between.”
That’s Clint Harper, advanced air mobility fellow at Urban Movement Labs, the nonprofit organization that’s facilitating urban air travel in Los Angeles. LA wants to have flying cars by the time they host the Olympics in 2028, though Joby thinks they’ll be up and running before then. Here’s Oliver Walker-Jones, their spokesperson:
“We have to certify our aircraft with the FAA—that's kind of the main hurdle we have to get through in order to start commercial operations. We have to have the FAA say, ‘this is safe, you're ready to go.’ And we're targeting that for 2025. So we're planning to start commercial operations in 2025—I guess the future is closer than you think.”
In large cities, where traffic gridlock is of primary concern, flying vehicles offer an opportunity to rise above it, and flying taxi hubs, called vertiports, are being planned in more than 65 cities.
“If we look forward 10 or 20 years, the ambition for our business is to make sure that this form of transport is revolutionary. So we see it pretty much everywhere that we see cars, trains, and other forms of transport today. It should be totally normal for you to consider a journey that you're making, grab your phone, and book a flight with us whether you're going downtown to spend the evening with your friends, whether you want to get out to nature, whether you just need to get to the other side of a large bay, we expect that it's something that you would want to do on a regular basis.”
If, so far, this sounds more like helicopter ride-sharing than the flying car future we were promised by The Jetsons, Star Wars, or Blade Runner—you’re right. Joby aircraft looks like a helicopter crossed with a Tesla. And vertiports look just like helipads. And solving the last mile challenge isn’t as enticing as say, speeding across the desert of Tatooine.
“The flying cars narrative has created a lot of confusion about what the technol ogy is and what its opportunities are. A lot of my work has been trying to get away from the flying cars narrative and anchoring this back in aviation, which is really where it's at.”
That doesn’t mean personal aircraft isn’t on its way. The appropriately named Jetson One is the first flying car to hit the personal market. The vehicle looks something like a futuristic ATV—one report went so far as to call it a “real-life ‘Star Wars’ Landspeeder.” The Jetson One doesn’t require a pilot’s license to operate in the United States, takes only five minutes to learn how to fly, and costs $98,000 to purchase—it’s like buying a Land Cruiser.
“On the regulatory side, most of those aircraft are being certified as ultralight or recreational vehicles. And so the operational rules for those vehicles, are generally that you have to be away from densely populated areas. It’s for recreational purposes, so they don't want to fly over areas where there's a higher ground risk of injuring people or damaging property or even yourself if something were to go wrong. For the foreseeable future, I don't see a world, particularly in dense cities where, personal aircraft are going to be a part of the transportation solution.
Think of them like the dirt bike of the sky. It basically is Tatooine.
“Down in central Utah, the Haynesville airport has quite a bit of traffic of recreational users of ultralight aircraft, paragliders, and things of that nature.”
If the recreational use case exists, it doesn’t see individuals flying around the city.
“The idea is not that you buy an aircraft and fly around yourself, but instead—just like an Uber today—you open an app, you book a seat, you ride on an aircraft—and there will be other people on that aircraft with you, but that's one of the great ways in which we can make it affordable as well.”
If I’m hesitant to think that would be affordable, so is Clint. In fact, he doesn’t want air travel to become like catching an Uber. He’d much rather it be like catching a bus.
“In 2016, Uber put out a white paper that envisioned what urban air mobility would look like, primarily as an extension of their Uber ride-sharing service where aerial vehicles would account for the longer legs of the trips and then, at the landing facility, you hair an Uber to solve that last mile issue. As a transportation planner and land use planner, I took issue with that. Ubers, and all ride-sharing, isn't accessible to everybody, and doesn't benefit everybody. Rather than connecting private ride-sharing businesses, let's look at connecting to transit.”
Clint sees the opportunity for these transit centers to become multi-modal transit hubs.
“If you look at like a lot of little renderings, there's been a bit of work done on the benefits of potentially using rooftop parking garages as landing locations withi rn urban areas.”
These parking garages would act as vertiport and charging port in one. Autonomous vehicles, electric bikes and scooters could charge there as well, carrying passengers that last mile home. And there’s reason to believe the technology will only become more affordable and accessible over time.
“Helicopters use a form of jet fuel. They're also very, very expensive to maintain. So if we move to electric power, we reduce the cost of maintenance we also reduce the cost of the energy required to fly, and because it's considerably quieter, we’re going to be able to use it much more frequently than helicopters are used at the moment.”
“I think, as we get into the world of advanced air mobility and the goal of democratizing or further democratizing aviation, we can start bringing that bar down.”
And eVTOLs are a lot faster than land vehicles and without the obstacles. One pilot city, London, wants to put vertiports in every surrounding city, transporting suburban dwellers to the city center in half an hour, when it usually takes up to three.
“If we scooch forward to the future, we would love to see this in any metropolitan area. And, as technology increases, batteries improve and the range of aircraft increases, there's no reason why we wouldn't be looking at journeys of let's say, 100, 150, 200 miles for aircraft, connecting cities without having to go through mainstream airports.”
Not that Joby doesn’t envision a more local offering as well.
“We've designed an aircraft that has a range of 150 miles, we expect the average journey to be more like 25 miles but everything in between is something that we hope to be able to service and we think there's great demand for.”
“I'd love to see a future where this is a common, pretty much everyday transportation, that doesn't feel like a special treat for you to take something that you would consider alongside the other forms of transportation that you use on a daily basis.”
Ok but if cities are covered in vertiports with eVTOL’s flying about from rooftop to rooftop, won’t that be rather unsightly, and loud? When Uber offered helicopter transport between Salt Lake City and the Sundance Film Festival, noise complaints from neighbors quickly shut the whole thing down.
Joby claims their aircraft aren’t any louder than typical city traffic. For example, here are five aircraft you’ve probably heard from your home:
These vehicles are electric. And because they fly, Oliver doesn’t think they’ll be crowding out the skies.
“Even if you took a city like LA and spread 300 aircraft across it, those aircraft move at 200 miles an hour. They're separated by rules that are defined by the FAA that saw what distance there has to be between aircraft, and they're going to spend, not an insignificant amount of time loading and unloading passengers on the ground. So if you imagine that maybe half of them are in the sky at once, that's only 150 aircraft and you spread that out across a city like LA, actually the chance of you seeing two in the same place at the same time is relatively low. As we scale the service up, sure we might start to see more aircraft. And yes, I think we will start to see defined routes and corridors that we expect to travel down.”
Did he just hint at freeways in the sky? The future the Jetsons once promised may actually be on its way. In the case of the Boeing-funded Wisk, it might even be autonomous. The plan for most of these startups is to become more like drones than helicopters—but with the ability to carry people. That’s true for Joby too.
“The end game is that we will get to a point where we can take that pilot out and have fully autonomous flight that allows us to have an extra seat in the aircraft and reduces the cost. It could well be the future.
I can’t help but wonder whether this is even the future we want. If cities are so congested that the best way to navigate them is by air, wouldn’t we be better off creating more cities, instead of bigger ones? And if traffic on the ground is such a problem, maybe we should eliminate commuting, instead of creating more ways to commute—remember how empty LA’s highways were during the pandemic?
I can’t help but think decentralization, dispersion, and remote work, are solutions that are being underutilized for the sake of so-called progress and our relentless pursuit of a technocratic future—our quest for the flying car.