“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” So said Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future, and so agrees Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose office just wrapped a nine month collaboration with the World Economic Forum (WEF) developing a framework for the implementation of urban air mobility, better known in non-aviation parlance as flying cars.
“Urban air mobility may seem far away today, but really the timescale is probably five to seven years before we see actual expansion of this type of technology,” WEF Aerospace and Drones Project Lead Harrison Wolf told Los Angeles.
Wolf, who worked with the city on the roadmap, says urban air mobility vehicles will more likely resemble “high scale drones” that are powered by electric propulsion and multi-rotor technology, employ vertical takeoff and landing, and hum as quietly as Teslas over the city at a low altitude. Over time, the drones will use automated systems, Wolf predicts, taking weather into account, and connecting to other modes of transportation.
“We’re at the beginning of a twenty year story,” Wolf says. “This is like the Model T.”
The logistics have yet to be determined, but Wolf can envision future Angelenos scheduling a flight on their smart phone, taking an elevator to a “vertiport” at the top of a nearby high-rise or parking lot, and flying off to their destination.
Technology is developing so rapidly, says Wolf, civic leaders worldwide worry the speed of innovation may well outpace policymaking. A similar problem occurred with electric scooters. When the sharable scooters landed in L.A. in late 2017, city officials weren’t prepared, and had to rush to regulate the new vehicles. To avoid the same mistake, Mayor Garcetti’s office wants to have a plan in place before looking up and finding drones (or humans in jetpacks) littering the sky.
To design the plan, the Mayor’s office formed a working group of more than 50 government planners, community organizations, manufacturers, service providers, academics and other stakeholders, including the WEF, Los Angeles Department of Transportation, FAA, and NASA. Industry partners included Uber Elevate, which is developing aircraft to enable “aerial ridesharing” as well as tech giants Amazon and Google, which are working on drone programs to improve the speed of package deliveries.
The working group’s end product was a sci-fi sounding set of “Principles of the Urban Sky” to guide policymakers in Los Angeles and elsewhere as they implement urban air mobility: environmental sustainability, safety, low noise, job creation, equity of access, connectivity to existing transport options, and data-sharing that allows providers to respond to demand.
Wolf predicts L.A. will likely be one of the first cities to implement urban air mobility on a commercial scale, which is fitting, he says, given the region’s rich history of aerospace pioneers like John Northrop, Amelia Earhart, and Howard Hughes.
In light of the global pandemic, many cities’ urban air mobility efforts are on the back-burner, but Mayor Garcetti believes it still deserves a place on the agenda. “Even in the face of COVID-19 today,” he said in a statement, “our eyes are fixed on the horizon of a reimagined tomorrow, where Urban Air Mobility is a central part of a safe, sustainable, equitable future.”
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