Air Taxis: The (Un)Sustainable Future of Travel for the World’s Elite?

Traffic jams and congested roads are a big problem in almost every large city in the world. Could flying taxis offer a solution? Unlikely. They're not much more than the futuristic dream of a rich elite.

Author RESET :

Translation RESET , 12.09.19

All over the globe, more and more people are chosing to live in urban areas. But few of the world’s cities were designed to house the growing number of people. The morning commutes can often become an ordeal lasting several hours, battling through congested roads. It’s not only frustrating, it’s terrible for the environment too.

A brand new form of transportation – moving vehicles into the unused airspace above cities – is being touted as a solution, with companies all over the world, including Germany, developing flying taxis. But critics of the idea say that air taxis are a noisy, expensive and environmentally-unsustainable dream of a handful of wealthy businessmen.

Lilium and Volocopter: Germany’s Flying Taxi Pioneers

The startup Lilium from near Munich has been working on developing a public transport jet since 2015 in a bid to enable a world where, as they put it, “anyone can fly anywhere, anytime”. Their all-electric Lilium Jet takes off and lands vertically, and is designed to be as compact as possible for maximum ease of use in urban areas. The jet can carry four passengers at speeds of up to 300 km/h to their destination. First test flights have already been carried out successfully and Lilium wants to be on the market in several cities by 2025.

The company Volocopter from Bruchsal in the south-east of Germany completed its first test flights back in 2011. Their current model, the VoloCity, is also 100 percent electric and will be able to fly up to 35 km at a top speed of 110 km/h. Just like the Lilium jet, the VoloCity is described as being both safe and exceptionally quiet. The companies also claim that flights are set to be just slightly more expensive than taxi rides are currently.

The idea sounds promising at first: if we’re running out of space on the ground, why not put traffic up in the air instead? But that’s where the first mistake in thinking begins. There’s actually much less room to manouevre in the air than on the roads. If taxis were to fly through the air in the future – in addition to parcel and surveillance drones and private aircraft – we would soon run out of space. And there are currently no rules in place about how to regulate air traffic over cities. These air taxis would also require take-off and landing areas. The roofs of buildings would be a suitable space, but our cities are unlikely to have enough free space to integrate them – and ensure that they’re accessible. These factors quickly reveal the concept to be far less practical than it sounds. Just like the example of Dubai goes to show: Volocopter is currently organizing test flights there – with a grand total of just two take-off and landing areas. Air taxis will probably end up being more of a tourist attraction than an alternative to other means of transport. As a future form of mass transportation? Highly unlikely.

Another obvious problem is the propulsion of the aircraft. Anyone who has ever been anywhere near a helicopter taking off knows that it produces both deafening noise and extremely strong winds. Although the companies claim that their flying taxis are extremely quiet, the volocopter, for example, has 18 rotors. A noiseless and windless take-off and landing seems hardly possible. The situation is similarly problematic when it comes to energy: although the machines are to be run 100 percent electric, they will probably require huge amounts of electricity to make them fly. Making sure that this is sourced from renewable energies is key to ensuring that the whole operation is sustainable – and that poses a major challenge. And last but not least, we have to consider the privacy of the people being “flown over”. Before they’ve received their consent, air taxi operators will face major legal issues.

A tech gimmick – not a solution to traffic woes

At first glance, air taxis seem to be a fantastic, eco-friendly and efficient transport alternative. But taking a closer look, it quickly becomes clear that they won’t come close to solving the pressing traffic problems facing our cities. They don’t seem to be much more than the technological dream of a small, rich elite. In the future, if we’re going to make any real sustainable progress, we have to move away from the concept of private transportation altogether. Instead of encouraging dreams of flying, investments should be made in expanding public transportation and making our inner cities more attractive for pedestrians and cyclists. The ongoing development of electric cars, the expansion of the charging infrastructure and a more intelligent use of the vehicles already on the roads – like through car sharing for example – are much smarter goals.

We urgently need to transform our transport system – but how? Could switching over to electric transportation be the answer? In our RESET special on E-Mobility we take a look at the status quo and analyse the potentials of an all-electric future. You can read all of the articles in our special right here.

E-Mobility: Where Is It Taking Us?

Climate change, particulate pollution, C02 emissions: If we're to make a switch from fossil fuels to clean energy, the transport sector needs to find new concepts, alternative energy sources, and innovative solutions.

Electric Scooters In Berlin: How Eco-Friendly Are They Really?

As their popularity spreads throughout Europe, Germany has become the latest country to introduce electric scooters to its roads. Could they help solve traffic problems and make our cities cleaner and less polluted? What is their real environmental impact?

E-Mobility in Uganda: How Electric Motorbikes Are Cleaning Up Kampala’s Air

Air pollution is a serious issue in Uganda's capital. The startup Zembo wants to turn one of the city's most popular means of transport - the boda boda - green. Our writer in Kampala spoke to one of Zembo's founders.

Flying High: Could Drones Revolutionise Public Services in Our Cities?

A UK innovation foundation has taken a look at the potential ways drones can help support public services - and save money in the process.

Wind Power – The New Aircraft Flying High to Harvest Green Energy

Higher, more efficient and definitely more mobile - students at the ETH Zurich are breaking new ground with a special airborne device for harvesting energy from the wind.

Why Are Flights Really So Cheap?

We all know that flying emits huge amounts of CO2. And covering the same distance by bus or train is always far more expensive. In fact, sometimes even getting to the airport by train can cost you twice as much as the flight itself. So why is air travel really so cheap?

© Tobias Dittmann
“25 Years From Now, Transport Will Have to Be Almost Completely Electric”

How can Germany - once held up as a pioneering force in the field of environmental protection - reach its current climate goals? And how can e-mobility help? We talked to Volker Quaschning, professor for regenerative energy systems at the HTW Berlin.

Could Share & Charge Be the Airbnb of Electric Cars?

E-mobility meets sharing. Share & Charge is a new platform that has a fresh idea for how to tackle the problem of insufficient of charging points for electric cars - by connecting EV drivers with people and their private charging stations at home.

How Green Is E-Mobility? It All Depends on the Power Source and Where the Battery Ends Up

Electric vehicles are currently touted as the most eco-friendly way to get from A to B. But what's the truth behind their supposedly green credentials? We've taken a closer look at their life cycle to see how they really shape up.