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 that is taking place right now in Dallas, Texas. 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 though. 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 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. Personalized air travel will be a lot cheaper **, more practical, safer, brought close(r) to your point of departure and destination, less noisy than using 'choppers', and with an estimated smaller footprint (rotor diameter / surface) than the cheapest helicopter ($288k) on the market has, the Robinson R22. Click here. Expect authorities to designate air corridors (running parallel to freeways?).

"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.

Below: Two reputed VTOL craft designs versus iSetta VTOL car ****.

There's this universal development 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.

Ralph Panhuyzen, sevehicle@gmail.com

* 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.

*** 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. This modular system will require less space and less fuss than having separate VTOL crafts and separate rental cars or taxis, which is (click>) 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 May 2, 2017:
There were some skeptic articles after Uber's flying taxi plans became known. Influential Forbes in particular. Most of the issues raised were addressed in this blog, although I agree that what OEMs have shown so far, does not look promising. Helicopter manufacturers, for instance, tend to reinvent... the helicopter, which is as you may all know a complicated piece of machinery and therefore expensive.

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