Article first published on Forbes on February 4, 2018.
Story written by Christine Amour-Levar
Traffic congestion is one of the most prevalent and frustrating characteristics associated with major cities. Despite being known as the "Garden City," Singapore has one of the highest road densities of developed nations with 4.8km of road for each square kilometre of land. Singapore also has one of the highest ratios of vehicles per kilometre of road at 232. This is significantly higher than Japan (63), France (39), the United Kingdom (77) and the United States (37).
Even though the country has put in place a range of incentives and constraints to limit the impact cars have on the city-state with a system of quotas, registration fees, and congestion charges, traffic congestion still remains a major concern. And as the city gears up, once again, to host the Singapore Airshow, Asia's largest aerospace and defence event on Feb 6 to 11, 2018, one area of interest bound to be on everyone's minds is urban mobility.
Airbus, a major participant of the air show every year, announced it is planning to feature its Urban Aerial Mobility (UAM) technology -- more commonly known as the flying taxi concept.
Visitors at the Airbus stand will be offered a virtual reality tour in this hotly anticipated solution to road congestion. The CityAirbus or Flying Taxi programme, an intrinsic part of the overall UAM concept, is scheduled for its first test flight at the end of 2018. With an estimated cruising speed of 120 kph (80 mph), it will be a multi-passenger, self-piloted, battery-powered, vertical take-off and landing vehicle intended to carry up to four passengers over congested megacities in a fast, affordable and environmentally friendly way.
Furthermore, while initially slated to have a pilot onboard, the taxis will switch to fully autonomous operations as and when the host city is ready to go driverless. The flying taxis would be able to skip over city traffic, which could dramatically decrease travel time, entering and exiting busy transit points, alleviating ground congestion and reducing CO2 emissions.
Singapore is as serious about cutting traffic congestion as it is about reducing its CO2 emissions and remaining ahead of the curve when it comes to environmentally-conscious businesses and green technologies. Singapore’s Minister of Finance Heng Swee Keat in his Budget 2017 speech included plans to implement a carbon tax from 2019 and adjustments to two vehicle incentive schemes to encourage the use of greener vehicles. Furthermore, in March 2017, the Ministry of Transport also revealed that it was in talks with companies to start trials on flying taxis. This is part of a drive to expand the range of urban mobility options, and Singapore plans to have them ready by 2030.
CityAirbus Programme Head Marius Bebesel said in an interview for this article that wherever Airbus operates its new urban air mobility vehicles they will need to meet government regulations and fit into the local air traffic infrastructure and rules concerning routes, altitudes and speed. “We are discussing such requirements with authorities in several countries, including Singapore,” he said. Furthermore, when asked about the price tag of these flying taxis and the infrastructure requirements, he answered that they "will be cheaper than a conventional helicopter both in terms of acquisition and operation, and any city using our flying taxis will need to build dedicated vertiports for take-off and landing as well as ground stations to control the vehicles.”
Additionally, with artificial intelligence (AI) replacing the traditional human driver, concerns have arose that autonomous buses and flying taxis could be exploited through malicious attacks and weaponized. Airbus is aware of this growing risk, according to Bebesel, and "actively dealing with this aspect of safety on all levels." Ultimately, Airbus believes that its Flying Taxis will revolutionize urban travel for millions of people. “In a not too distant future, we'll use our phones to book a fully automated flying taxi that will fly us from the city to the airport – without any pilot."
And Airbus isn't the only company developing flying taxis. Uber has signed a deal with NASA to help develop traffic systems for its flying car project, which it hopes to start testing in 2020, while Dubai just saw the maiden trial of a two-seated, 18-rotor taxi prototype built by the German company Volocopter. Nevertheless, Airbus benefits from a close relationship with Singapore dating back to the mid-1970s, with the company supplying Singapore Airlines and Silkair with Airbus jetliners, from the A320 to the A380. It seems likely that Airbus’ Flying Taxis may soon be buzzing over the Lion City