flying cars
Movies like "Back to the Future" projected that today's skies would be filled with flying cars. Though that hasn't happened, similar personal aircraft technology is in development. (Illustration by Julie Chow, University of California, Berkeley)

Urban Air Mobility Is the Best Long-Term Alternative to Flying Cars

This new transportation system promises widely accessible personal aircraft travel, similar in some ways to the flying cars of science fiction.

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flying cars

This new transportation system promises widely accessible personal aircraft travel, similar in some ways to the flying cars of science fiction.

Flying cars are a common inclusion in many science fiction stories. From iconic movies like “Back to the Future” to “Blade Runner,” the flying car has been a staple in mainstream media for decades. Analysts, researchers and authors all predicted we would see such vehicles by the early 2000s, or in the case of “Back to the Future,” 2015. Sadly, they were all, more or less, wrong. Many obstacles have hindered progress and halted any attempts to realize flying cars.

However, the idea of what a flying car is has changed; new vehicle technology is on the rise, which may soon usher in the age of flying cars, albeit in a different form than expected. Companies like Airbus, Lilium and Boeing have invested in a new type of transportation system called Urban Air Mobility (UAM), which uses electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. UAM promises abilities similar to science fiction’s flying cars.

The appeal of flying cars is mainly related to their ability to revolutionize modern transportation, especially in urban environments, and to add three-dimensional infrastructure. Imagine not having to wait in traffic for hours on end. Instead, you can use a flying car to traverse the skies in half the time it would have taken you by land. Most current personal air travel forms utilize helicopters and airplanes, which are loud, costly and only able to fly and land in designated areas. UAM seeks to offer the same benefits of convenience and speed to everyone, with less noise and more accessibility while allowing for low-altitude transportation.

What Is Urban Air Mobility?

UAM is an idea for a new system of transportation. Cars and highways are a movement system from one place to another in urban and suburban areas, and so is UAM. When you drive your car from your house to the local grocery store, you’re using the roads and traffic signals built for the land transportation system; the aim of UAM is to implement a similar system with aircraft or, in a sense, flying cars.

UAM proponents envision “a safe and efficient aviation transportation system that will use highly automated aircraft that will operate and transport passengers or cargo at lower altitudes within urban and suburban areas.” The system would use newly built and preexisting infrastructure such as helicopter pads.

Along with these new routes, Air Traffic Control (ATC) services would help guide aircraft and prevent accidents. In reality, UAM will be an eVTOL multiperson, automated or human-crewed aircraft, providing taxi services from one launchpad to another. Sounds like a flying cab, right? The sky is full of open space waiting to be used at low altitudes, free of traffic.

Obstacles To Overcome

Despite its potential, UAM faces several obstacles blocking the system from becoming more than an idea.

Technology

One of UAM’s biggest hurdles is technology. One of the reasons helicopters haven’t become the sky’s version of the car is the loud noise they generate; you can hear helicopters from far away. The noise can shake buildings and disrupt the environment, creating noise pollution, which is why you don’t see helicopters flying low through cities.

The problem of sound needs to be addressed to make an enduring UAM system and vehicle. One company pushing the boundaries of quiet electric technologies is Joby Aviation, which says its aircraft will be as “quiet as a conversation.” So far, Joby’s aircraft has delivered on its statement, so technology has advanced to mitigate noise. But the sound isn’t the only problem modern technology has.

Like most transportation providers, electric vehicles have become a hot topic. Moving away from gas-based propulsion has huge benefits, and electric technology is seen as the alternative. However, the electric aircraft is a relatively new product. They are still undergoing tests and reviews for safety and reliability. The batteries and take-off devices need to be sustainable, cost-effective, quiet and long-lasting. Many electric aircraft are nearing completion and have already hit the market, but these problems need to be overcome within UAM-based transportation.

Infrastructure

Another significant barrier to UAM’s success is infrastructure. Unlike a new car, UAM aircraft will only have a limited amount of viable infrastructure already made, meaning whole new systems and routes for aircraft need to be created, along with launchpads and fuel stations. Not only that, but governments will have to tackle the legal issues regarding where the aircrafts can and cannot fly, along with the safety issues of UAM.

Permissible ways for aircraft to get around will need to be defined and built, which, at the onset, could be costly. Airbus is among the companies driving UAM and eVTOL technology forward; it has already defined its vision and mission for infrastructure. Using a combination of digital and physical connections, seamless designs and legal approaches, Airbus shows a way to overcome the infrastructure barrier.

Cost

Cost is probably the most problematic barrier for UAM. Designing and implementing a whole new transportation system is a massive undertaking, costing a great deal to advance without concrete future gains. Creating aircraft that allows low-altitude flight within urban and suburban areas means investing in innovation and technology. UAM providers must make their products’ prices cheap enough to make their efforts fruitful — taking an expensive aircraft and making the cost affordable enough for anyone, as opposed to only the rich, is a tricky jump to make.

To take helicopters as an example, everybody doesn’t have a personal helicopter because of the price tag of a helipad and the aircraft itself. UAM seeks to provide an affordable and widely usable alternative to the car, but the current projected cost is a massive problem preventing UAM’s goals from becoming a reality.

Despite all the obstacles UAM faces, many companies are pushing the boundaries and trying their hardest to make UAM a viable and affordable option to the public. A few decades from now, you could be traversing cities in air taxis within UAM systems similar to science fiction’s depictions of flying cars, except pilots and artificial intelligence will be driving. It may be many more years before you see everyone with a personal aircraft, but then again, would you trust people to fly a vehicle today when driving one on land results in so many accidents? People’s ideas of flying cars, shaped by science fiction and Hollywood, aren’t precisely what reality has in mind, but UAM offers the next best thing.

Writer Profile

Joseph Gorzka III

University of Virginia
English and East Asian Studies

A student at the University of Virginia, an avid reader and a dabbler in the writing arts.

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