Flying Taxis May Be Years Away, but the Groundwork Is Accelerating

SAN FRANCISCO ― Flying cars are just starting to inch their way out of science fiction. But that is not stopping some companies from planning for flying taxi services.


A growing collection of tech companies, aircraft manufacturers, automakers and investors are betting that fleets of battery-powered aircraft will give rise to air taxi services, perhaps as soon as the next decade. Some of those taxis, the companies hope, may even use artificial intelligence to fly themselves.


The dealmaking, technology exploration and perhaps wishful thinking around this new sort of flying transportation ― please, the companies ask, don’t call them flying cars ― are reminiscent of the work done on self-driving cars just a few years ago.


No one can say for certain if these new vehicles will turn out to be a real business. But many companies are already worried about being left behind.


The European aerospace company Airbus said Tuesday that it was making an investment in Blade, an aviation startup in New York, and forming a partnership to expand Blade’s helicopter hailing service in more cities around the world. Last week, Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, said he expected the ride-hailing company to start flying passengers on a service called Uber Air in five to 10 years.

欧洲航空公司空客(Airbus)周二表示将投资纽约的一家航空初创公司Blade,并与其建立合作伙伴关系,在全球更多城市扩大Blade的直升机呼叫服务。优步(Uber)的首席执行官达拉・霍斯劳沙希(Dara Khosrowshahi)表示,他预计这家招车公司会在5到10年内推出一个名为“空中优步”(Uber Air)的飞行载客服务。

In November, Boeing acquired Aurora Flight Sciences, a company specializing in flight systems for pilotless aircraft, for an undisclosed sum. Before the acquisition, Aurora had been working with Uber to develop a flying taxi. And Joby Aviation, a startup in Santa Cruz, California, building its own air taxi, said this month that it had raised $100 million in venture funding from a consortium of investors including the venture capital arms of Intel, Toyota Motor and JetBlue Airways.

11月,波音收购了专研无人驾驶飞机飞行系统的公司极光飞行科学(Aurora Flight Sciences),未公开收购金额。在此次收购之前,Aurora公司正与优步合作,研发飞行出租车。而一家正在研发自己的空中出租车的初创公司――位于加利佛尼亚圣克鲁斯的乔比航空(Joby Aviation)本月表示,一个包括英特尔(Intel)、丰田汽车(Toyota Motor)和捷蓝航空(JetBlue Airways)风险投资部门在内的投资者财团已向其注入一亿美元风险投资。

“This is the natural progression of the vehicles we make,” said Ben Bridge, head of global business for Airbus Helicopters. “We want a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation that is happening.”

“我们的载具制造走到这一步是很自然的,”空客直升机(Airbus Helicopters)全球业务负责人本・布里奇(Ben Bridge)说。“我们想拥有一席之地,也想加入这个正在进行的对话。”

Flying cars even played a bit role in the recently settled legal fight over trade secrets between Uber and Waymo, the self-driving car service spun out of Google.


In court testimony this month, Travis Kalanick, Uber’s former chief executive, said he had heard that Larry Page ― the chief executive of Waymo’s parent company, Alphabet, who has a side project building new types of aircraft ― was upset because Uber was “doing their thing” with flying cars.

在本月的法庭证词中,优步前首席执行官特拉维斯・卡兰尼克(Travis Kalanick)表示,他听说拉里・佩奇(Larry Page)――Waymo母公司Alphabet首席执行官,他另有一个制造新型飞机的副业项目――之所以不满,是因为优步在飞行汽车领域“做了他们擅长的事”。

Whatever you imagine a flying car to be ― stop. What these companies envision is something like a helicopter but much quieter and more affordable. Think of a hobbyist’s drone, but big enough to fit people. It would, in theory, be welcome in urban environments and affordable to more than well-heeled businesspeople. At least, that’s the dream.


Before there can be too much enthusiasm for these flying taxi services, it’s worth noting that self-driving cars have yet to turn into a notable business for anyone, despite about a decade of research at tech giants like Google and billions in investment from Silicon Valley and the auto industry.


Regulators are just starting to agree on rules for large-scale tests of self-driving cars on public roads. How would they deal with flying taxis? The details of the future service are far ― very far ― from being ironed out.


Still, there are some reasons for the new enthusiasm. Battery improvements and the wide use of drones have spawned technological breakthroughs. The taxis would take off and land vertically like a helicopter, so they’d take up less room. Because they would be battery-powered, they would be more environmentally friendly.


For now, Airbus executives hope to gain from Blade’s experience with an app that allows customers to reserve a seat on a helicopter. Airbus is expected to invest up to $15 million in Blade, which would represent about a 10 percent stake in the company, according to a person who is familiar with the transaction but not permitted to discuss the investment details publicly.


Both companies see helicopters as an intermediate step until a new type of aircraft and taxi service hits the market. Rob Wiesenthal, Blade’s chief executive, said a quieter and less expensive alternative to helicopters “opens up a whole new world.”

两家公司都将直升机视为新型飞机和出租车投放市场之前的一个过渡。Blade首席执行官罗布・维森塔尔(Rob Wiesenthal)表示,更安静、更便宜的直升机替代品“打开了一个全新的世界”。

Airbus said it was preparing for a test flight by year-end for its CityAirbus aircraft, which carries up to four passengers and can reach a cruising speed of about 75 mph. It plans to deploy the CityAirbus in 2023.



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