After Work From Home, Are Self-Flying Planes The Future Of Commuting?
For many of us, one of the few silver linings of the past eighteen months has been the disappearance of the daily commute. Confined to our homes for weeks at a time, we could at least take solace in the fact that we weren’t spending potentially hours of the day stuck in traffic or crammed onto a sweltering bus or train. However, with the advent of autonomous transport, this quintessential part of the daily grind might be about to change once again.
Both United and American Airlines have recently placed orders in for electric vertical take-off and land aircraft, better known as eVTOLs. These lightweight contraptions are designed to move around crowded urban areas with almost no noise, no pollution and no pilot – potentially revolutionising the way millions of Americans get to work.
Investors are clearly impressed by the technology, with American Airlines stumping up a reported $1 billion for up to 250 eVTOLs. As a result, manufacturers including Joby Innovation and Volocopter predict these helicopter/plane hybrids could be in the skies by as early as 2024.
How Practical Are eVTOLs
Despite their futuristic design, eVTOLs are thought to be surprisingly well suited to the modern urban commute. Speaking during a recent interview with USTN, Congresswoman Davids explained that the new technology will enable the aircraft to travel at lower altitudes, including over populated areas, while producing no more noise than a ride-on lawnmower.
After visiting some of the companies developing the technology, Rep. Davies said that she was “motivated” at the prospect of an increasingly autonomous future, adding that she hopes to work alongside the industry to “ensure its safety and success”.
Is There Much Interest?
Most travelers will have never experienced anything like flying to work – let alone without a pilot. As such, there are a few hurdles in public perception, especially when it comes to safety.
Stéphane Fymat of Honeywell Aerospace, who are developing the systems which will power these aircraft, has said that to counteract these concerns the first aircraft will need pilots to help put customers at ease.
“Consumer acceptance comes down to a few things, in my mind, it comes down to a sense of control and trust. If we went immediately, automatically to completely autonomous air taxis with no pilot on board, passengers would have no sense of control,” she said.
Several large corporations from a variety of sectors have already shown interest in the development of eVTOLs, including Tesla, Virgin Atlantic and waste management conglomerate Avalon.
Lawmakers are also keen on the technology, with a bill legislating for the rollout of these aircraft recently passing through the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. This Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) bill aims to help introduce electric aircraft such as eVTOLs into the airspace sector in order to create jobs and improve transport links in underserved urban areas.
What could eVTOLs be used for?
eVTOLs will have a wide range of possible uses, from personal travel to parcel delivery.
DHL Express announced this week that it would be purchasing 12 electric cargo planes for use in US parcel delivery as part of a bid to reduce their carbon emissions. FedEx and Amazon have similar plans in the pipeline to make their transportation of goods fully electric.
The technology is also touted as the future of mass urban transit. Rep. Davids, the architect of the AAM bill, told USTN that eVTOLs would be incredibly impactful for linking urban and suburban areas in her home state of Kansas, cutting a ride to the airport by as much as 30 minutes.
Additionally, there is also talk about the possibility of owning personal eVTOLs, such as the iFly concept developed by Next. The company’s CEO, Dave Verkade, said he intended his device to be a “departure” from the standard taxi business model currently being used by most eVTOL start-ups.
However, this reality seems slightly further off, with the company only just receiving US patent approval and still lacking major investors.