SE Vehicles

Will the electric car 'really take off' this time?

Apr 26, 2017

Uber says it will launch flying taxis in Texas and Dubai by 2020. It announced this at the Uber Elevate Summit in Dallas, Texas. Uber would need “between 500 and 1,000 flying cars for every big city... a multi-billion dollar market”. ** No wonder that aircraft builders committed themselves to developing eVTOL craft, electric aircraft that can takeoff and land vertically - among them: Airbus, Bell, AgustaWestland, Aurora, Embraer and 'newcomers' such as Lilium, Volocopter, Joby and Terrafugia.

More than half (and climbing) of the world's population resides in cities. They propel a country's economy. However, traffic tends to suffocate urban areas. Important is to find faster ways of transit, at least to the people who matter and care. Change of regulations is up to aviation authorities. Adapting them will work as an enabler of one of the most exciting, new industries (like they do with regard to developing self-driving cars). Generally, countries don't want to miss out on them. Click to see short intro on eVTOL's significance and potential.

People have been fantasizing about flying cars for ages. Seamless transit through the air or by road, whichever suits your needs or time schedule, is the huge, unexplored void between regular air travel and using passenger cars. Talking about new market potential... Here's a very likely scenario. It's a scenario that may appeal to both the aviation industry as well as to car makers. ‘Flying cars’ take a lot of time, money and engineering to develop. No combination turned out satisfactory so far. Why don’t we see the sort of progress the telecom industry has made over the past decade? Too complicated? What options are there? (click).

What if we’d stop trying to squeeze two transport modes into one contraption? Drones may point us in a viable direction. If aviation authorities will allow parcel delivery drones (U.S. will probably be first), why not beef-up the rotors and airlift passengers? Electric rotor technology is constantly evolving, so are lightweighting and battery technology. If we expect cars to ‘2D-maneuver’ autonomously through dense city traffic... then it should be less of a problem to have rotor-equipped vehicles auto-pilot themselves through the air, where there’s lots of 3D space to maneuver. *

Contrary to helicopters, no pilot (license) will be required. With VTOL craft, personalized air travel can be a lot cheaper **, more practical, safer, brought close(r) to your point of departure and destination, less noisy than 'choppers', even take up less space than the cheapest helicopter ($288k) on the market does, the Robinson R22. Click here. Expect authorities to designate air corridors, probably running parallel to freeways (click).

"Separate what goes up from what goes horizontally" has distinct advantages over fixed two-in-one contraptions like the (click>) Terrafugia and PAL-V that usually need a runway to take off and land. Simple: ditch weight (battery-equipped rolling chassis) to become airborne, take off the rotors when you drive away. ***

- The lighter the vehicle, the easier it is to achieve true VTOL capability (vertical takeoff and landing)
- Way easier to pass regulatory requirements as an aerial and as a road vehicle
- Swapping and servicing of components is easier; ditto the perfecting and upgrading of components
- There’s always matching transport (literally) awaiting the customer, fully charged
- Lower operating costs
- It's a business model in itself. Chain-like. One that fits the way future transportation will be handled rather than be narrowly based on vehicle ownership - mobility-on-demand, network-embedded, provider-operated. Finally, a TNC's position in the market for personal transit can be enhanced beyond the use of a ride-hailing app.

There's this universal principle: if a concept is basically simple (i.e. elementary) in its individual components and/or modules, development will be easier to benchmark, manage, verify, bring together. It tends to eliminate wishful thinking and engineering. If it's not, you get the equivalent of the Joint Strike Fighter program (the U.S. Defense Department's nightmarish, overextended development of an all-in-one, multi-role fighter jet). What's basically laid down here, is the challenge to engineer -1- a proper rotor configuration - think of power to weight ratio ('oomph' is important during VTOL), number of thrusters, blades, rotor diameter, tilt, etc. -2- a three-wheeler with separable, lightweight passenger compartment and road chassis -3- the electric(-hybrid) drive to propel both road and aerial vehicle, and -4- the guidance system that will stabilize flight, optimize aerodynamic lift ("trim") during flight and auto-pilot / control functions in both modes.

The challenges when engineering eVTOL craft? How to bring together (package) thrust, lift, (battery-added) weight, range, practicality? Below: the iSetta VTOL car ****.

Ralph Panhuyzen,

* Many new projects, such as SkyOpener, Mistrale, and MapKite are exploring new ways to use GNSS in aviation, with respect to Galileo and EGNOS (the EU’s GPS-overlay system), to determine both location and altitude.

** The cheapest helicopter on the market, the Robinson R22, typically costs $300 per hour to rent, so approx. $300 per 150 km (taking preflight etc. in consideration) or $2 per km. Mind you, that does not include hiring a licensed pilot. Uber says it will charge customers $0.82 per km for a VTOL trip. Click here for more info.

*** You will need some sort of service point, no different than your local garage, tire station or rental car agency, to have the rotor assembly lifted off, checked, charged and stored away for the next customer. Best to combine this with heliports or vertiports, to begin with. The beauty of the system is being able to instantly drive off the moment you touch down on a fully charged chassis, in a vehicle that's ideally suited for dense city traffic. No disembarking and walking towards a car on a wind-swept landing site / parking deck. This modular system will require less space and less fuss than having separate VTOL crafts and separate rental cars or taxis, which is UBER's 'rooftop' vision.

**** If you want to know why 'New iSetta' (preliminary working title) makes perfect sense as a self-driving, electric, ride-hailing vehicle, click here for a brief introduction.

PS June 12, 2017:
There were some skeptic articles after Uber's flying taxi plans became known. Influential Forbes in particular. Some VTOL craft makers seem to complicate things (click to see some). And helicopter manufacturers who want to cater to this new 'VTOL taxi' market tend to reinvent... the helicopter, which is as we all know an intricate piece of machinery and therefore expensive.

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