FLYING CARS Cadillac and other automakers get serious about flying taxis
For the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show (held digitally this year), the Cadillac division of General Motors showed a radical new design concept for a flying taxi that appeared to be straight out of the future as a trend of automakers promoting and even investing in a forthcoming age of aerial vehicles looks set to continue.
For the past 10 decades, science-fiction writers, futurists, and would-be prognosticators have tantalized us with illustrations, mockups, and even (in recent years) fully functioning prototypes of flying cars. While they started with writers’ and artists’ imaginings, the idea of a car that could become an airplane or an airplane that could function like a car began to infect the minds of engineers not long after the invention of the automobile and the aircraft.
For a brief time, the two types of vehicles seemed to be competing in terms of which would become dominant in terms of transportation, but ultimately, the safety, lower bar for training, and most likely, a rapidly growing network of roads (along with a lack of suitable aviation landing and takeoff areas) determined that cars, not airplanes, would become the reigning mode of personal transport technology. Yet despite this, for many decades, curious hybrid concepts and even the odd commercially produced vehicle (manufactured in small numbers) kept interest alive in this notion. The idea of an affordable contraption that could simply float above traffic congestion at will and return to Earth again at or near one’s destination (or alight atop an office building in a crowded city) sold countless magazines, movie tickets, and even theme-park ride admissions. Periodicals such as Popular Science and Popular Mechanics continually suggested that such vehicles were “just around the corner” and would surely appear en masse in the next decade. For 50 years or more, this promise seemed like it would never ultimately be fulfilled, but with the advent of large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for the military, electric motors with compact and lightweight batteries, and new aerodynamic designs tested in wind tunnels and at outdoor proving grounds, the promises of yesteryear gave way to real working prototypes and startups dedicated to producing such vehicles on a medium-term timeline.
Electric power changes the game
While in the past, automakers such as Ford had toyed with the idea of mass-manufacturing personal flying vehicles, reasons of practicality, physics, and costs stymied such efforts. But once electric power proved that it would be the future of automobiles, naturally, minds began looking to other modes of transportation that it could be applied to. Small battery-powered drones were seen as models for what was possible and might be realistic at larger sizes as far as size-to-weight and weight-to-power ratios, form factors, and flying modes. New companies were created to develop and sell mostly unproven vehicles to individual owners willing to pay in some cases a pretty penny for technology and designs that literally in many cases had yet to get off the ground.
But finally, it began to dawn on automakers that their past aspirations for flying cars had not been fanciful notions; there was and is both a demand and a market for such vehicles, and to ignore an opportunity to fill this niche would be commercially unwise.
Enter GM and Cadillac
As of January 2021, General Motors and Cadillac became a company and a division, respectively, that were willing to publicly acknowledge that both the demand and the market existed for such vehicles. With the online presentation of two concept vehicles (as well as numerous other simultaneous introductions) from Cadillac’s “Halo” range—introduced by GM design chief Michael Simcoe—the carmaker appears to have shown that it’s ready to fully cast off an image of what in the past may have been considered an out-of-touch industry ideology, merely glossed up or manicured with flavor-of-the-month enhancements and marketing images at regular intervals.
Watch here the online persentation of Cadillac's two concept vehicles:
Now, with a commitment to producing no less than 30 new electric vehicles (EVs) in the next four years, GM appears to have renewed itself via an unprecedented commitment to its new Super Cruise set of AV features and Ultium EV battery technology and platform across an array of vehicles.
The two Cadillac Halo concepts unveiled virtually (it’s difficult to tell from the video if they physically exist or are merely sophisticated computer renderings) for the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) are first, a ground-based autonomous vehicle (AV) with seating for five occupants that lacks driving controls (meaning that it must function at Society of Automotive Engineers [SAE] Level 5—“full automation”) and second, an autonomous flying taxi designed for a single occupant that features electric-driven vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL).
The Cadillac eVTOL flying taxi
The flying taxi features four electrically powered rotors running off a 90 kW power source—two at the floor of the vehicle, mounted in front, and two at the rear of the vehicle, mounted at roof level. By tilting each of the rotors, the vehicle can steer and propel horizontally as well as vertically at speeds up to 90 kph (56 mph), and it also appears designed (as was shown in several video sequences) to be able to alight from both ground takeoff and landing spaces and elevated “vertiports” on the tops of buildings.
Like flying vehicles imagined or built by other firms, it seems that Cadillac has in mind that these Halo devices would be operated via a shared-use model rather than being individually owned. But simply the fact that Cadillac appeared to be showing off such concepts as “the future of transportation in the next five years and beyond” (in his presentation, GM design chief Simcoe also hinted at a two-passenger Halo vehicle that would be unveiled in the near future) served to further legitimize this category of vehicles as a viable one for the future.
In addition to GM/Cadillac, other automaker OEMs that have publicly shown designs and prototypes for flying vehicles include Hyundai, Porsche, Toyota, and Xpeng, while automakers Daimler and Geely have invested significantly into German flying-taxi startup Volocopter.
Hyundai and Toyota vehicles
Both Hyundai and Toyota have designed vehicles that were first envisioned for use with carsharing firm Uber’s Elevate air-taxi subsidiary, which was originally scheduled to launch commercial services in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne by 2023. But now that Uber has decided to divest itself of Elevate, it appears that its partner Joby Aviation, which has acquired the buzz-generating division (in concert with a USD75 million investment from Uber) is likely to use its own four-passenger craft for Elevate services, at least initially. Meanwhile, both Hyundai and Toyota have announced plans to bring their S-A1 and SkyDrive flying vehicles to the skies of Seoul and Tokyo, respectively, as early as 2023.
Hyundai first showed a non-functioning version of its eight-rotor, four-passenger S-A1 vehicle at the 2020 CES, but was hesitant to provide a timeframe for when the vehicle would first go into service (2028 was mentioned as an expected date for commercialization of general “urban air mobility” [UAM] service) or information about where it would be produced. In the meantime, Hyundai said that further R&D efforts were being focused on bringing down the vehicle’s noise levels and cost while increasing its safety. The S-A1 utilizes an airplane-like eVTOL design seen in similar craft from several flying-taxi startups.
In contrast to Hyundai, Toyota has been much more forthcoming as to a timeframe for when its eight-rotor, two-passenger SkyDrive vehicle could be ready for service; the firm has said it intends to have a commercial version of the SkyDrive—which underwent manned flight testing in August 2020—ready for 2023. The municipal government of Tokyo, in the meantime, has said that the city wants to get flying taxis into its skies in the next five years. For now, the SkyDrive resembles a helicopter more than an airplane, and unlike some of the other vehicles mentioned here, it does not have a roof covering its passengers’ heads, although one could conceivably be added later.
Porsche and Boeing collaborate
In 2019, Germany’s Porsche signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences (which has designed its own flying-taxi concepts) to develop eVTOL flying vehicles. “Porsche and Boeing together bring precision engineering, style, and innovation to accelerate urban air mobility worldwide,” stated Steve Nordlund, a vice-president and general manager of Boeing. “This collaboration builds on our efforts to develop a safe and efficient new mobility ecosystem and provides an opportunity to investigate the development of a premium urban air mobility vehicle with a leading automotive brand.” While a working prototype has yet to appear, renderings of a Porsche-Boeing/Aurora vehicle resembled a black, Batmobile-style personal jet with clipped wings.
Xpeng shows off its Kiwigogo
At the 2020 Beijing Auto Show, EV startup Xpeng Motors showed off a non-functioning prototype of its helicopter-like, eight-rotor, two-passenger Kiwigogo flying vehicle, designed for low-altitude cruising. The Kiwigogo lacked any kind of protective cover for the pilot and passenger, and Xpeng stressed that the vehicle was only a research effort.
“This is a long-range R&D exploration for us to really think about mobility in a greater context,” explained Xpeng Vice Chairman and President Brian Gu. “We think in the future not only electric vehicles will have the smart mobility autonomous driving features, but with other technology, [they will be able to] enable other devices that can create a multi-dimensional ecosystem that will be very exciting.”
Daimler and Geely invest in Volocopter
Both German automaker Daimler and Chinese automotive group Geely (which owns roughly 10 % of Daimler) have invested in German startup Volocopter, a maker of helicopter-like, 18-rotor, two-passenger flying taxis that could be up and running in select European, Asian, and Middle Eastern cities as early as 2022. Volocopter’s prototype vehicles had flown more than 1,000 times on multiple continents as of August 2019, and its craft have met safety standards established by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). The company is now working on developing standardized “VoloPorts” for its vehicles to take off from and land on.
Upcoming challenges for flying taxis
It seems clear there’s both a market for and a genuine consumer interest in flying taxi services. Consulting firm Deloitte estimates that the market for eVTOL vehicles will be worth USD3.4 billion by 2025. Nevertheless, significant challenges are ahead in terms of practicality, airspace regulation, and safety mechanisms as very few market players have hard-and-fast ideas about how large numbers of flying-taxi vehicles would navigate the skies. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications would have to be established so that taxis would not collide with one another or present a danger to people or property on the ground. A near-term shortage of air-traffic controllers will only exacerbate the situation in the immediate future.
Present aviation safety places demands on manufacturers for standards that are orders of magnitude more rigorous than those for the automotive sector. Certainly, the number of auto accidents that are tolerated annually on the ground could not be replicated in the sky. An expansion of the “Vision Zero” philosophy that’s working to remake the driving experience with AVs would have to be extended to the atmosphere—from the very beginning. Noise and visual pollution are other factors that would likely have to be addressed. Would there be the equivalent of “sky corridors” that packs of flying taxis would travel in at carefully regulated altitudes? Various government and standards bodies are only starting to discuss these questions and others.