Rising Above It: How the Automotive Industry is Elevating Urban Air Transport

Dean Sigler Electric Powerplants, Hybrid Aircraft, Sky Taxis, Sustainable Aviation Leave a Comment

Introducing Giles Kirkland

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest writer, Giles Kirkland, “… is a passionate car expert and dedicated automotive writer. He always researches on the newest car technologies and willingly tries them out, then sharing his thoughts and expertise with other automotive and technology enthusiasts across the globe. You can find Giles and his ideas at Oponeo and on Twitter.”  Since he lives in England, he tends to spell things like “tyres” differently, but also writes about them with great depth and charm.  Herewith, his introduction to our readers.  We hope to feature his insights in future outings.

Many governments, industries and groups push for a “green recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic or simply make increasing efforts towards reducing the negative impact of people’s daily practices on the environment. We look at how the automotive industry is already backing sustainable aviation—and why.

Why the Car Industry Cares about Green Aviation

The car industry has expertise in mass-producing vehicles to high safety standards and a head start on green technology, and it seems keen to share its knowledge (and its money) with the aviation industry. That’s because while air travel is under pressure to become more sustainable, it’s also set to become more necessary and urban as road traffic congestion worsens.

UAM (urban air mobility) is predicted to be big — and lucrative — potentially presenting car manufacturers with both their stiffest competition and their greatest investment opportunity.

​Leaving Urban Traffic Behind

Electric or hybrid UAM promises to be quieter and less polluting, but it can address not just environmental sustainability but social and economic sustainability too.

Curbed’s Urbanism Editor, Alissa Walker, points out that good transport is vital to “provide an equal access opportunity for everyone in the city to get where they need to go,” something she feels isn’t possible in car-bound cities. UAM could help achieve the goals of the US Vision Zero Cities, committed to eliminating ‘all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.’

Traditional approach to traffic safety compared Vision Zero goals

Dr. Christian Lösel, Mayor of Ingolstadt, a German town that’s a hub of autonomous and digital mobility development, explains that UAM will prove especially useful for time-critical journeys ambulance services and attractive for business customers in a hurry.

“The shortest way to link to a point is still a straight line, and [UAM] allows for the ability to circumvent any uncertainties linked to urban traffic,” he says.

Automotive Ventures into Urban Air Mobility

Audi and Airbus, both based in Ingolstadt, joined the EU Urban Air Mobility Initiative with a pilot air taxi scheme, but Audi has stepped back from this and is reconsidering its UAM strategy, partly due to news that sister company Porsche is working with Boeing.

The two industry giants have joined forces to explore the premium urban air mobility market with an electric vehicle capable of vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL). Detlev von Platen, Porsche AG’s MEB for Sales and Marketing, said UAM is “a potential key market segment of the future.” The project is very much in its early infancy, but with a team of the world’s finest engineers combining their expertise, a completely new mobility ecosystem could emerge sooner than we expect.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Hyundai’s UAM division presented its vision of an integrated smart mobility solution including UAM and self-driving Purpose Built Vehicles (PBV)—and its collaboration with Uber’s UAM Division, Uber Elevate, to develop a flying taxi service. Hyundai’s S-A1 flying electric car will carry four passengers and a pilot, but will eventually be autonomous. It will take 5-7 minutes to recharge and undertake trips of up to 60 miles.

“We believe Hyundai has the potential to build Uber Air vehicles at rates unseen in the current aerospace industry, producing high quality, reliable aircraft at high volumes to drive down passenger costs per trip,” said Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate.

Another four-passenger piloted eVTOL craft, which travels 150 miles on a single charge, is being developed by aerospace company Joby in collaboration with Toyota . Toyota brings not only investment but also manufacturing, quality and cost control expertise into the table. The company said that this collaboration reflected their ‘recognition of the long-term potential of the urban air mobility market to meet the evolving needs of society.’

Even Daimler has shown interest, investing in the Volocopter company (also backed by the Geely group, owners of Volvo and Lotus). The all-electric eVTOL Volocopter 2X has been described as a ‘gigantic drone you can sit in’, which aptly describes most air taxis currently in development.

Aston Martin’s hybrid-electric three-seater, on the other hand, is a little different, featuring a more refined design. Intended for luxury air mobility and inter-city travel, the Volante Vision Concept will use stacked propellers to achieve vertical lift—four smaller tilting propellers in the front, and two larger vertical propellers in the back. Autonomously flown, with different levels of pilot interaction (depending on experience), the vehicle will reach cruising speeds of up to 285 mph, generating minimal carbon footprint in the process. For the project, Aston Martin has partnered with Cranfield University, Cranfield Aerospace Solutions, and Rolls-Royce.

Terrafugia, another UAM company working with the Geely automotive group, also offers novel designs: the two-seater Transition, which quickly adapts from car to aircraft and runs as a hybrid on the road, and the TF2, a four-passenger cabin transportable by an air or road vehicle, under development as a piloted hybrid with the ultimate aim of autonomy and all-electric power. Many UAM vehicles were set for commercial roll-out over the next few years.

And although numerous difficulties related to the cost, certification and regulation issues, plus the COVID-19 pandemic may still postpone them, we will surely see the advancements sooner or later.

“I’m pretty certain we will see initial commercial services with a relatively small number of vehicles sometime between 2023 and 2025,” says Aviation Week’s executive technology editor, Graham Warwick. “But… I think it will be sometime after 2035 before we get to any sort of scale.”

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