Taking a ride on a flying air taxi could become as cheap as taking an Uber ride, and get you where you’re going in a third of the time, according to a NASA concept study.
In fact, if you’re looking for your flying car, today’s Uber ride-on-demand arrangement just might provide the best model for finding it, said Mark Moore, chief technologist for on-demand mobility at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.
“Uber could provide a true door-to-door system,” Moore observed during a presentation at this week’s SAE AeroTech Congress and Exhibition in Seattle. “It’s hard to beat that economic model.”
Moore’s presentation was part of a status report on “flying cars” — a science-fiction phrase that’s frowned upon by the folks who are actually working on flying cars. (No offense, George Jetson.) The experts prefer terms such as roadable aircraft, hybrid air systems … or air taxis.
Moore and his colleagues came up with a scenario for a swath of Silicon Valley, running from Oakland to San Jose, where air taxis could conceivably match an Uber benchmark of $1.50 per mile traveled and reach an average ground-speed travel rate of 63 to 122 mph. That equates to a threefold improvement in rush-hour travel speed.
But NASA’s scenario comes with a few big “ifs.” You knew there’d be some ifs, right?
- The study assumes the development of a new kind of vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, powered by electricity-driven propellers. Distributed electric propulsion, or DEP, is the focus of NASA’s LEAPTech initiative as well as an assortment of commercial ventures.
- To provide enough range, the aircraft would have to use next-generation batteries with at least twice the energy density that’s currently commercially available — around 400 watt-hours per kilogram.
- There’d have to be an infrastructure to support all those Uber Air flights. The NASA study suggests putting helipads on the roofs of more urban buildings, in the middle of highway cloverleafs, or even on floating barges. Researchers estimate that there’s room for at least 200 cloverleaf pads in the Silicon Valley region they targeted.
- The Federal Aviation Administration would have to sign off on the regulations for all those added flights. NASA’s study determined that the helipads could be built to fit the FAA’s clearance restrictions.
- To reduce costs, the model calls for an aircraft capable of carrying a pilot and one passenger. NASA says that should cover more than 70 percent of the trips currently conducted by Uber.
- The Uber-style model is key to making the economics work: NASA’s study assumes that each air taxi would be in the air 1,500 hours a year, or roughly 30 hours a week. “Utilization is king,” Moore said.
- Moore said the noise factor is the “most severe constraint” for community air taxis. If those next-generation aircraft are as loud as present-day airplanes or helicopters, the idea won’t fly. Literally. However, NASA says the motors for a DEP-powered craft could be arranged to create acoustic interference, resulting in a putt-putt that’s not as off-putting.
NASA is planning to build an experimental airplane in the next couple of years to demonstrate DEP technology, but commercializing the concept will be left to private ventures such as Joby Aviation, ESAero, Zee Aero, E-Copter and e-volo.
When it comes to the economic model for air taxi services, Moore said British Columbia’s Helijet is blazing a trail with its Vancouver-to-Victoria service — and he said next-generation air taxis “would make a lot of sense” for the increasingly congested Seattle region as well.
“Both areas have severe geographic/water ground constraints that are easily circumvented with aerial solutions,” Moore told GeekWire in a follow-up email.
So what about owning your own flying car? The NASA study suggests that personal air vehicles wouldn’t pay for themselves in terms of energy or time savings, even assuming that next-generation technologies take hold.
Nevertheless, government agencies and high-end customers would probably still be willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the roadable aircraft that are being developed by companies such as Terrafugia, Moller International and AeroMobil. The economic factors could be outweighed by the benefits for specialized applications — such as border monitoring — or by the thrill of flight and the prestige of ownership.
“What people are willing to buy at times doesn’t always reflect what makes the most economic sense,” said Carl Dietrich, Terrafugia’s CEO and CTO.
Correction for 12:05 p.m. PT Sept. 25: The NASA study found that the combined air and ground speed for a hybrid air taxi system provides a 3.0 to 3.6 time improvement over the current ground speed in Silicon Valley, which is 21 to 34 mph during peak times. The figures were misstated in an earlier version of this report.