In traffic-clogged cities such as Houston, Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles, it can take hours to drive a few miles during rush hour.
For years now, inventors have been working toward a potential solution: vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (VTOL). Though some know them as “flying cars,” early prototypes more closely resemble a hybrid version of an airplane and a helicopter with a hint of drone, rather than a conventional automobile.
Among the most highly anticipated examples of an air taxi is the Bell Nexus, an “urban air mobility vehicle” that debuted at this year’s CES technology show in Las Vegas. Bell Helicopter, which created the prototype, said the idea behind the technology is simple: Instead of idling in traffic, a commuter could order a flying taxi to shuttle them across town from above, bypassing the congestion below.
Uber, which has unofficially partnered with Bell Nexus, has previously claimed its fleet of air taxis would be able to travel 150 to 200 mph, allowing the company to whisk passengers across a sprawling metropolis such as Los Angeles in minutes instead of hours.
“It won’t be like an Uber that you order and it comes to your driveway,” said Robert Hastings, Bell’s executive vice president of strategic communications, noting that the company instead foresees using an app to figure out the location of the closest skyport, where you’ll rendezvous with your aircraft. “We believe this will be for short hops across a metropolitan area.”
“Getting to the Dallas/Fort Worth airport from the suburbs can be an hour-and-a-half drive, and we think these aircraft can make the same trip in eight minutes,” he added.
Hastings said the company believes the Bell Nexus is more than just a commuter aircraft. When cargo needs to be moved from a Walmart on one side of town to the other, he said, the company’s aircraft could be put to use.
The Bell Nexus seats up to five passengers, not including the pilot. The company originally planned to bypass a pilot, keeping the aircraft autonomous, but has since included room for a pilot in the machine’s design, Hastings said. Larger versions of the aircraft could hold eight to 10 people, he said.
What does it look like inside? Hastings said the Internet-connected cabin was designed to be plush and provide wide views of the outside world.
“It looks like you’re in a limousine on your way to prom,” one reviewer said, excitedly pointing out USB ports and cup holders.
The craft is powered by a hybrid-electric propulsion system featuring six tilting fans. Those fans, the company said, would allow the vehicle to take off vertically and cruise at high speed when they’re positioned at 90 degrees.
Hastings said the fans are being tested in a wind tunnel and that the company is confident that the flight controls can be designed to operate autonomously. The biggest challenge air taxis face, he said, is building infrastructure and navigating regulatory issues and certification challenges through the Federal Aviation Administration. Inside the industry, experts think the FAA won’t certify vertical takeoff and landing aircraft for commercial transportation until they’re proved safe. Once that happens, experts say, a new wave of alternative transportation is likely to quickly emerge.
“We believe a very successful project would get an aircraft certified and manufacturable by the mid-2020s,” Hastings said. “The technology, for us, is not extremely difficult.”
Part of the local regulatory battle air taxi companies will face involves persuading cities to tolerate even more overhead air traffic than they already do.
In addition to designing its 6,000-pound aircraft to be resistant to wind, rain and birds, Hastings said, the company has focused heavily on implementing a design that is as quiet as possible. They’ve done this, he said, by making the rotor blades smaller and by encasing the ends of the eight-foot blades — where most of the noise is created — inside circular ducts. The result, Hastings said, is that the blade’s sound changes from a “whop whop whop” to a “whoosh whoosh whoosh.”
The question for cities will be whether creating more traffic, this time from above, is an acceptable price to pay for relieving congestion.
“Everything is just getting more crowded and dense and everybody is trying to solve that problem, and we think there’s one dimension that’s not being addressed — and that’s up,” Hastings said.