How to Hail an Air Taxi

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This image of the Volocopter 2x is a computer rendering. But the two person vehicle is real, and is being tested in major cities such as Dubai and Singapore. A partnership with Intel led to the first flight in the United States, at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

I first got interested in air taxi service four years ago when Fat Pencil Studio helped a software entrepreneur visualize a fleet of autonomous air taxis serving New York City. Our vehicle concept for this project was a single passenger cockpit mated to a six-rotor lifting-body that could fly with or without the cockpit attached. Fleets of these lifting bodies could be stationed on blimps for charging and quick deployment to pick up passengers atop buildings.

Volocopter's plans are much more practical. The 18 rotor all-electric vehicle is simpler than other helicopters in use today. The design is also is failure tolerant, which means Volocopter can still fly if there is a problem with one of it's redundant guidance units or battery packs. Should all else fail, a parachute is deployed. The range is relatively short at 27km, but this is likely to improve in future versions, and in the meantime, battery packs are designed for quick swapping at indoor transit hubs located in the top floor of tall buildings.

I've read many articles predicting that autonomous cars will make taxi drivers obsolete, and I do think we will soon see limited deployment of self-driving fleets in carefully controlled environments such as corporate campuses and high-end resorts. However, I am skeptical that autonomous cars will ever be successful in dense urban environments. It's very difficult to create software that will respond adequately to unpredictable events, and mistakes will ultimately cost human lives.

Volocopter's 2x and other air taxi vehicles currently under development will have the advantage of operating in a controlled airspace: a three dimensional "road" with few if any unpredictable obstacles. This is a much easier software problem, and will allow vehicles to move in tight formation as demand rises on defined flight paths. It will take some time for people to adjust to the idea of flying instead of driving between appointments... just like people had to adjust to the idea of using elevators instead of stairs to access upper levels of a building.

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Joshua Cohen is a principal at Fat Pencil Studio