LAS VEGAS — A long way from home, I can’t help thinking about the traffic in Seattle.
All of the televisions and smart speakers and washing machines and every other gadget imaginable at CES isn’t going to fix that problem for the city where I live. But I found something on Tuesday that just might. Someday.
Bell Helicopter, the Fort Worth, Texas-based maker of commercial and military aircraft since 1935, showed off a concept that could make traffic congestion in any city something you view as you fly over it rather than sit in it.
Bell is the first major helicopter manufacturer to have an exhibit at CES. The experience featured its Air Taxi, a sleek-looking four-passenger cabin.
Calling it “the future of air mobility,” Bell is teaming with ride-hailing giant Uber for what both companies hope will be a more accessible, reliable and affordable mode of transportation normally reserved for the very wealthy or connected.
Michael Thacker, Bell’s executive vice president of tech and innovation, called the Air Taxi a “low noise, efficient, high-speed solution” to the gridlock that many cities, like Seattle, are facing. People are increasingly in search of rapid solutions to avoid traffic, save time and get across town.
Despite the fact that just the helicopter cabin — with no rotor — was on display Tuesday, it was still time for a ride. By strapping on an HTC Vive headset, I joined other users who were able to “leave” the Las Vegas Convention Center — if only for a few minutes.
I checked in at a kiosk that asked me to select from three destination scenarios: a trip to the golf course leaving at 6:33 a.m.; a cross-town meeting at 12:45 p.m.; or a gala event at 8:45 p.m.
I chose the gala event and stepped into an “elevator” to be whisked to a rooftop helipad. Despite the heavy rain outside in Las Vegas, it was a beautiful night in VR future city as the elevator rose past nearby buildings to reveal a nice sunset.
I and three other passengers stepped out (through the fake elevator doors) and were escorted to the Air Taxi where we put on the headsets so that we could see the view and interact with a few selections on a control panel, such as news reports and virtual phone calls.
As the Air Taxi lifted off in VR, it was perfectly easy to suspend disbelief and feel as if I had set up this trip through Uber — albeit a self-driving helicopter version of Uber.
To drive home the whole point — that I was smart for choosing to travel this way to my gala event — the urban landscape below featured an unending line of red tail lights of cars sitting in traffic. I pretended I was flying high above the Mercer Mess in Seattle.
The small cabin was comfortable, and VR allowed me to spin around and get a look at a man seated next to me and a woman drinking coffee in a seat behind me.
Upon arrival, the Air Taxi descended quickly and touched down near a red carpet for the event I was attending.
“You saved 45 minutes off your trip,” a voice told us.
If only the future arrived so quickly.