The Future Commute: Ready for Crowded Skies?
Traffic and commute times are increasingly important to people when they consider where they want to live, work, and play. The millennial preference for walkable communities is rooted in a desire to avoid the isolation of sitting in traffic. Getting between our urban areas, like Seattle and the east side, is taking too long. We are not alone; cities along the West Coast are seeking relief from their reliance upon the car, and the accompanying gridlock and parking problems generated by that reliance.
According to recent reports, relief in the form of on-demand air transport is in the works. Two that caught our attention recently are Vahana and the Eagle. Both are battery-powered. Both are fast. Both are designed to address congested city traffic by taking the commute to the sky. And both will be here soon.
Airbus’s Project Vahana is a personal passenger aircraft without a pilot, designed to carry a single passenger or cargo. The aircraft will follow predetermined flight paths, with minor deviations if obstacle avoidance is required. The single-seat electric aircraft uses eight propellers mounted on wings that rotate. This means Vahana takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like an airplane. This is called VTOL, or vertical take-off and landing. Airbus hopes to start flight testing a prototype before the end of the year—and it could be ready by 2020. Test sites include Pendleton, Warm Springs, and Tillamook, Oregon. Of course, a few laws and Federal Aviation Administration regulations would need modification to allow what are essentially self-flying taxis.
Lilium Aviation has had a successful test flight of the Eagle, which is a two-seat VTOL electric jet. Unlike Vahana, Lilium’s design accommodates the use of a pilot. The Eagle has a top speed of 186 mph. A bigger, five-seat version of the Eagle is also in the works.
Airbus and Lilium are not alone; other variations of air transport are also in the design phase, including those backed by Uber. The Eagle’s debut comes the same month Uber announced it will start eVTOL air taxi service in Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai by 2020, likely using craft of a similar size. “A large network of small and inexpensive landing pads and central places in cities will allow you to quickly enter an aircraft anytime and fly anywhere you want. Leaving the city after a stressful day will soon be transformed into a thrilling ride. By traveling through the air, you’ll be able to avoid time-consuming traffic jams while enjoying a magnificent view” (quoting Lilium).
What we are learning is that inter-urban air transport is not only possible, but is actually likely in one form or another. If you add together VTOL air transport and the advent of self-driving cars, concerns about getting from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time begin to dissipate. Will this change our ideas about where we want our future selves to live or work? Will the advent of air travel change our cityscape? It cannot help but change our view from downtown high-rise buildings.
Our past and current reliance on the automobile has boxed us in with gridlock. We have another chance to do a better job of planning with this future mode of transportation. At the very least, we can all dream about it while we sit in traffic, (im)patiently struggling to get from Seattle to the east side.