Flying cars are coming to LA. But will they solve the traffic?


Did you know that the future may only be a few years away? Did you know that you might soon be seeing real flying cars in the Los Angeles sky? And that the city’s goal is to circulate tens of thousands of them?

In December, the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the creation of an Urban Air Mobility Partnership, a new public-private merger with Hyundai to achieve “low noise electric planes flying in our local airspace by 2023. “. The partnership says it will work on security and infrastructure issues, including the logistics of a “vertiport” where these things can take off and land.

A Dream Hyundai promo features near-future trips to Los Angeles and San Francisco, with special attention to poor traffic… and how you can get by. Video of the CES 2020 Hyundai / YouTube.

Garcetti is very optimistic about flying cars, although it is not clear whether the city’s dedication to urban air mobility (UAM) will change when and if it decamps to India.

In late April, Garcetti spoke at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Aerospace Innovation, where he presented the sales pitch for LA as a leader in Advanced Air Mobility (AAM). It has been a hub of the aerospace industry for over half a century, so flying cars extend that fate.

“For this technology, the sky is literally the limit. And it has the potential to reduce emissions, connect communities and grow our economies, ”he said. “We need to ensure that the AAM does not create overhead highways accessible only to those who can afford them… without creating more sprawl. We know that in Los Angeles, where traffic is among the worst in our country, and our air quality is too, even though we have made tremendous progress.

This futuristic optimism is not shared by everyone.

“We have this technical term in the transport that I’m going to use. So if you need a definition let me know: that sounds like bullshit to me. “

It’s UCLA town planning professor Michael Manville who gently points out that the transportation industry is full of promises and deadlines – self-driving cars, electric vehicles, high-speed rail.

“It’s just the beauty of the technology that doesn’t exist yet. … You can say anything about it, can you? It’s, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s going to be affordable, and we’ll have that many vehicles in seven years,’ ”he said. “Leave me alone.… It just doesn’t work that way.

Will the flying cars arrive on time? Will they deliver the clean and fair future that science fiction has promised us? Or are these still 20th century transport errors, but just a little higher?

Busy sky ahead

You might be surprised how important this industry is.

There are dozens of companies around the world trying to enter this space with their own version of the flying car. Some look like big quadcopter drones, others look like Cessnas with a bunch of extra propellers. There are “electric take-off and landing” vehicles (e-VTOLs). Some are designed to be piloted, others autonomous.

There are big companies like Airbus and Boeing, and small companies you’ve never heard of with names like Joby and Wisk and Lilium. Los Angeles is in partnership with Hyundai and a startup named Archer.

The industry sees this increase over a decade or more, even if the mayor’s office sells flyers by 2023. In the early years, the plane will be expensive, but the goal is to lower the price per trip in order to that people travel regularly – by carpooling. The idea that people own their own flying cars is not a big part of the business model. In the city, it’s like Lyft. But some startups are also looking to serve as regional connectors, flying from Silverlake to Palm Springs, for example.

The city’s UAM plan is based on a report called Principles of the Urban Sky, which LA developed with the World Economic Forum. He estimates, among other things, that we will have 23,000 vehicles in the air by 2030, and that a ride will cost about $ 30 per person.

Billions and billions of dollars are pouring into this industry, from hedge funds and people like Google founder Larry Page. So, there are a lot of people who really want to see flying cars in the near future. And not just air taxis. There are all kinds of other applications on offer for these things: regional or rural flights, freight transport, hover ambulances or troop carriers. Even the race.

It is an industry estimated at 1.5 to 3 trillion dollars by 2040.

UAM companies and boosters claim that flying cars can reduce traffic, provide affordable mobility for everyone, and create a cleaner environment.

The UAM industry also claims vehicles will be much quieter than helicopters, but potential noise complaints are just one of the hurdles they face. There is also the security associated with a group of planes flying over dense urban areas. Airspace is owned by the FAA, so there are struggles, or more charitably, intense conversations, over whether the city, state, or Washington will decide how these things use the sky.

Will they solve the traffic?

As technocrats contemplate a complete overhaul of the city’s infrastructure, airspace, and transportation to make way for UAM, for the LA driver it all comes down to one question: will flying cars actually do. disappear traffic?

Susan Shaheen is a mobility expert at Berkeley who has studied autonomous vehicles, carsharing and the environment. She and many others believe that highways in the sky will behave like highways on the ground: “The idea that if you create more capacity, it will just fill up, and we’ve seen that with highway building. .

It’s an induced demand in the sky: if everyone is flying and the highways open up a bit, people will just go back to cars because they are cheaper and there is no longer a slowing down. traffic, which then creates traffic jams.

Hyundai’s Pam Cohn says we shouldn’t think of flying cars to solve traffic problems on their own.

“UAM has been called the ultimate anti-congestion, just like autonomous land vehicles, just like micro-mobility,” she says. “And from our point of view, the answer is actually that all must come together to overcome congestion. “

It makes sense, but it also makes sense for breakfast cereals. You know how the commercials for Lucky Charms say “is part of a healthy breakfast?” Does that mean it’s healthy if you eat grapefruit too? That’s what the UAM industry says: Flying cars are part of a balanced transport breakfast, just like public transport, bicycles, and regular cars. But whether the flying car is good or bad for transportation – whether it’s a grapefruit or a bowl of brightly colored sweet shit – remains to be seen.

Hyundai’s vision of “multimodal” transportation includes flying cars, self-driving lounges and a “vertiport” where you’ll have a selection of transportation options and, possibly, an overpriced latte. Credit: CES 2020 Hyundai / YouTube.

“I think in the future there is an opportunity for us to really rethink the way we shape cities and how we develop cities. And I think maybe that’s where you get to the congestion reduction, ”says Dan Dalton, vice president of global partnerships at a UAM Bay Area startup called Wisk.

“But in the short term, I think it’s more about how to influence individuals individually, rather than trying to restructure the whole flow of traffic? “

In other words, urban air mobility is good if you need to cross town quickly, or if you want to avoid rush hour, or if you have I have to go to the bar for happy hour.

There is so much money invested in the future of a flying car that it is hard to imagine that it does not come to pass one way or another. Not even here and already too big to fail. If the goal is to create highways in the sky, what is actually good for us, the inhabitants of the earth, may take a back seat.

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