Taking to the air: The future of urban air mobility

In the 1997 film The Fifth Element—set in the 23rd century—Bruce Willis plays a flying taxi driver. Just over 20 years after the film’s release, flying cars are on the verge of becoming an everyday reality. Experts have been working on the technology for decades, and prototypes have already appeared in some air shows. Once commercially available, flying cars will reduce congestion, allow us to travel faster, and make it possible to hop over an ocean by car rather than by boat. On May 20th we invited panellists from across Asia Pacific to explore these possibilities and discuss the future of urban air mobility (UAM).

The future is around the corner

Panellists agree that the commercialisation of flying cars is just a few years away. With the required technology in place and trials underway around the world, flying cars could soon join helicopters and drones in transporting people and goods to wherever they need to be. However, a number of hurdles must first be overcome, including establishing the necessary regulations; commercialising the necessary technologies in order to lower costs; finding business use cases; and perhaps most importantly, gaining social acceptance of UAM. Ultimately, the goal of UAM is to lower the cost of air taxi fares to align with current on-ground taxi fares, although this may not be realised until the 2040s.

UAM may take many forms

Panellists suggested various use cases for flying cars. In addition to flying people from city centres to airports, UAM may be easiest to introduce for sea routes, as there are fewer safety issues flying over water and travelling across oceans remains costly . As widespread UAM is likely to be autonomous, it also offers advantages for logistics companies, which will no longer need to set aside valuable space for pilots.

Regulations seem to present the biggest hurdle

Panellists agree that regulations remain the biggest hurdle in making flying cars a commercial reality. Many governments have restrictions in place for drones, even for trial purposes, and similar restrictions can be expected for UAM. While private sectors will need to be involved in air traffic control as the volume of UAM traffic increases, there is not yet any visible regulatory pathway for UAM. However, authorities such as the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency are becoming active in the development of UAM, and Hyundai is already working with its national authority to form a consortium of private players to set UAM standards.

Sustainability is another hurdle

High energy density in UAM is another obstacle. Operators will need to track carbon footprints for individual offerings so that customers can choose accordingly. Electrification will help to improve the sustainability of UAM, however, and it is worth remembering that technological developments happen exponentially.

Safety testing is vital

Safety is paramount to gaining social acceptance of UAM. Private sectors will need to accumulate safety data, perhaps beginning with drone racing games that can demonstrate safety in a stressed environment. Cyber security is also a concern, although it is important to note that autonomy generally reduces the risk of accidents and prevents manual hijacking.

The age of UAM is coming While there are considerable hurdles to manage before UAM is part of our daily lives, it seems certain that we will be able to catch a ride in a UAM vehicle within our lifetimes. We should prepare to be amazed by the possibilities of this technology, and to start exploring the business use cases for UAM.