All Hail the Air Taxi?

The Chicago Tribune’s social media team has been pushing a story about air taxi service from downtown to O’Hare pretty hard on twitter the past several weeks.

I bookmarked the tweet to read later, which means I was never, ever going to read it. Then last week, the American Planning Association tweeted out a link to their take on flying taxis.

After a quick snarky reply to the APA’s tweet, I went about my business and tried to forget about air taxis. However, my sense of curiosity wouldn’t let air taxis go. If Chicago was getting into the air taxi business and the APA was warning cities to start planning for air taxis, I realized I needed to get a handle on what was going on with air taxis. 

To understand air taxis, we first need to look at the terms electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) and advanced air mobility (AAM). eVTOL generally describes a sort of electric-powered helicopter with large, tilting rotors that allow for liftoff and cruising and a range of 150 miles between charges. (Follow the link for a video showing how incredibly quiet eVTOLs are.) eVTOL is being hailed as “the future of vertical flight” and potential uses include military missions, package delivery, disaster relief and air taxis. AAM is “the use of automated transportation technology to transport people and cargo at lower altitudes in places not traditionally served by aviation,” and NASA is predicting AAM will be a commercially viable transportation option by 2028.

The aforementioned Chicago plan for the immediate future is downtown-to-O’Hare service, but Blade, the company behind this venture, also plans to get in on the coming eVTOL technology, which will allow for Uber-like air taxi service. Joby Aviation–with large manufacturing capacity due to a recent deal with Toyota and access to Uber’s platform via their recent acquisition of Uber Elevate–seems to be the major player in air taxi service. However, United Airlines recently invested one billion dollars in a potential rival to Joby Aviation, Archer Aviation. 

Joby eVTOL aircraft. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Joby Aviation is targeting 2024 for commercial launch, while sorting out FAA certification and developing air routes in the cities it plans to service. In the meantime, Los Angeles has already developed a policy framework, Principles of the Urban Sky, to guide AAM development and eVTOL air taxi service. So, the premise of the APA’s article – that flying taxis are coming and communities need to prepare – may hold. 

One caveat here is a lot of the funding of eVTOL technology is coming from a newly-trending investment tool. Special-purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) are widely seen by economic experts as being used to subvert investment regulations, such as the disclosure rules which, for example, allowed investors to see WeWork for the sham investment that it was during their IPO. A lot of the eVTOL funding is using SPACs as the investment tool. Funding eVTOL through methods that avoid traditional financial regulations may be a red flag–for the viability of development of the technology, but also for the penchant venture capitalists have towards avoiding regulations in general. 

As for how communities prepare for eVTOL air taxis, there are more questions than answers. On matters of equity, eVTOL claims with the lower cost of upkeep inherent to electric-powered vehicles and simplified controls which will require less pilot training, air taxi rides will eventually cost the same amount as a traditional Uber ride. So, the same equity issues we see with Uber will most likely apply to eVTOL air taxis–issues like cost prohibiting the poor from access, while also pulling ridership (and funding) from public transportation.

As for planning, how does our community prepare? Will air taxis harm Blue Line ridership and/or eventually make the Blue Line obsolete? Should Ramsey County cancel plans for the Riverview Corridor? Will air taxis relieve congestion enough to create another argument against plans for expansion on I-94 and Highway 252? Will we need the intercity high-speed rail the current administration is expected to support? Where will these companies want to build their heliports, and how does that conform to our existing land use comprehensive plans?

Further Reading:

https://evtol.com/

https://www.rotor.org/resource?ArtMID=493&ArticleID=2924