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Opinion: For the good of the industry, let’s cool down the hype on eVTOLs

written by WOFA | March 19, 2021

Embraer flying car

Finnish-Australian technologist Sami Mäkeläinen shares his insight into the vastly hyped world of eVTOLs and flying cars, and cautions that reality may just fall flat on science fiction.

New technologies are undoubtably exciting. Sometimes, however, the excitement shared in the concept of new technologies does not translate well into reality, and the idea of what is possible can far outpace that which is actually probable.

In today’s aviation sector, I believe that to be the case with eVTOL aircraft – often colloquially known as ‘air taxis’ – where excitement is heading for the stratosphere.

Many of us hold great wonder in the futuristic concept of eVTOLs, flying taxis, and ultimately, flying cars.

Yet, I am reminded that there is great reason why Gartner’s model of technological evolution is called the “hype” cycle.

Then too, there is Amara’s Law, which states: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

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Yet, expecting an imminent revolution is again where we find ourselves today.

So? Isn’t it good to get excited? Well, yes and no.

The problem is that inflated expectations are invariably followed by a trough of disillusionment, which, in turn, results in turning off the funding spigots and bringing on an exaggerated abandonment of the technology for a period of time.

While aviation is a naturally cyclical industry, why make it even worse?

I have seen this cycle repeat many times across many industries, and while the initial hype and investment generates an initial flood of innovation, a steadier, more measured pace of development and deployment would be better for everyone in the long run.

The broad deployment of small drones is one thing and comes with a host of its own issues, but larger drones, capable of carrying people, are another kettle of fish entirely.

The concept of flying taxis present so many issues in fact, that high-profile players, once keen to make a mark in the field, have already given up – such as Uber recently offloading their Uber Air business to Joby Aviation.

And yet, the public hype persists.

While in the very long-term – think decades – these aircraft are likely to be autonomous, there is broad agreement that in the near to medium term, they will be piloted. As such, these vehicles will likely share a stark resemblance to helicopters, if one that is somewhat cheaper, quieter and easier to operate.

There are a whole host of reasons why it is entirely likely you won’t be casually jumping in an air taxi to drop you off to the airport, at least not in the way that most people envision, anytime soon.

Many of the issues with widespread eVTOL deployment comes down to scale, specifically the expectations of that scale.

The number of these drones required to truly ‘disrupt’ things enough to make a dent in traffic to and from airports is bigger than anyone cares to admit, and that fact alone brings a host of issues that include, but are not limited to:

  • Current separation standards do not allow for the number of drones envisioned to disrupt current road traffic.
  • In a similar vein, unless safety measures could be improved dramatically (think ‘by two orders of magnitude’, dramatically), the large number of drones would result in so many crashes that the operators would quickly lose their license to operate (social and otherwise).
  • The required infrastructure to handle such a program would take an incredibly long time to plan and build.
  • The piloted fleets, which are anticipated to be large, would require pilots that largely aren’t available – despite the temporary pandemic doldrums, the aviation industry is facing an underlying pilot shortage that extends the world around.
  • Even the sustainability angle will be tricky, considering ‘electric’ does not mean ‘zero-emissions’, even if you power the drones with renewable energy.

But aren’t all these solvable problems?

Yes, they are. And people are working hard to do so.

However, solving all those issues takes time. Often, quite significant amounts of time – and rightly so.

One of the fundamental underlying reasons why today’s aviation industry is so safe and reliable is the amount of regulation involved. A side effect of that regulation is it ultimately slows down innovation.

Slowing down innovation is an anathema to many technology companies, but they are about to find out it has a well-earned place in some critical sections of society.

I don’t believe anyone in aviation, no matter how bullish they are about eVTOLs, is willing to sacrifice that overarching framework of safety, and that framework extends much further than simply engineering the aircraft.

All this should not be mistaken with me opposing eVTOL operations; quite the contrary.

Because I want the industry to succeed in the long term, I want the rhetoric of imminent revolution and disruption stepped down and expectations reset. Maybe that way, we can ensure the sustained development and long-term viability of these exciting emerging aviation sectors.

After all, none of us wants to repeat the experience of 1970s, when helicopter commuting was briefly a thing in New York City…

While eVTOL vehicles themselves may not require a runway, the companies building these technological solutions have a longer runway ahead of them than one might think in 2021.

The revolution will be gradual, and pushing the envelope too far is likely to result in a crash – figurative and literal.

Sami Mäkeläinen is a Finnish-Australian technologist, humanist and pragmatist. After narrowly missing out on a pilot career a quarter of a century ago, he instead chose to dive deep into computer science. Sami gradually ascended from the coding gutters to strategic and technology foresight but never lost the passion for aviation in all its forms and the industry. He’s a proud cross-disciplinary professional who thinks aviation has much to teach to the rest of the world.

If you too have a passion for aviation and wish to share your own insight with World of Aviation subscribers, feel free to reach out to World of Aviation reporter Hannah Dowling at [email protected]

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