GM signals interest in air taxis, but will such projects fly?

Ramsey said last week there have been no developments in the ensuing three years that have altered his outlook that flying taxis — while they sound cool and may be utilized by a well-heeled, niche audience — have limited use in more widespread fashion, along with operational constraints. 

One hindrance that could limit financial rewards associated with the electrification of air taxis: There’s a trade-off between battery weight, range and the payload, be it freight or number of passengers. 

Further, flying taxis could lead to traffic congestion in the air above cities already seeking to diminish ground-based traffic snarls and strengthen their regulatory control of new mobility modes.

A business model remains far from certain. Voom, a helicopter taxi service backed by Airbus, launched in 2016, promising to democratize the skies. 

It shuttered in March 2020, citing operational challenges related to infrastructure, public acceptance and the intricacies of on-demand vs. scheduled services — not to mention COVID-19 travel disruptions.

Another prominent aviation-industry player reduced its urban air-taxi footprint last week, just one day after Barra hinted at a role GM may play in air mobility. 

Boeing suspended operations at Boeing NeXt, its 2-year-old innovation division that had been exploring unmanned and piloted air-taxi applications. 

Still, investments in vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, known commonly as VTOLs, could reap gains that make services tailored to urban areas more efficient and financially feasible. The World Economic Forum, a global think tank, says urban air mobility will “likely” be commercially viable by 2028 if policies and regulations evolve to encourage further growth and investment. 

Last week, the forum issued a report called “Principles of the Urban Sky,” which is designed to help cities navigate issues ranging from airspace control, traditionally the realm of the federal government, to noise sensitivity and equitable access to aerial transportation. 

Logistical, operational and safety challenges ensure an uncertain takeoff for the embryonic market. But a status quo of worsening traffic brings its own challenges, said Jim Adler, managing director at Toyota AI Ventures, the automaker’s venture capital arm which has invested in air-mobility startup Joby Aviation.

“You can’t go down and build a lot of tunnels; it’s too hard,” he said last November. “Hyperloop, Big Dig, it doesn’t work. You can’t build more roads, at least in most cities. So where are you going to go? You’ve got to go up, right?”

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