As early as the times of Ancient Rome, the classical poet Virgil spoke in his work 'The Eclogues of the King of Athens Erictonius' of the chariot for hire. Having been born without feet, he felt sorry for those who had the same misfortune and invented this service, making it available to anyone who needed it. It was not a cab as we know it today, but an urban public service.
It was not until 1640 that the first modern taxi company opened (in the form of horse-drawn carriages), founded by the Frenchman Nicolas Sauvage. Since then, the evolution and expansion of cabs for hire around the world has continued, adapting to the needs of each customer, as well as to the environment and care of the planet with the appearance of electric or hybrid vehicles.
Flying taxis are now on the horizon, but are they just for science fiction movies or are they about to become a reality?
Innovation in the automotive industry: competition and sustainability
The flexibility of cab services has fostered their rapid growth and popularity within the industry worldwide. However, recent years have been particularly challenging for the industry. As a result of new technologies and strong competition, traditional cabs in cities around the world have been adapting their services to survive in the urban mobility context. In addition, the disruption brought on by multinational giants such as Uber, DiDi, Lyft or Cabify have expanded access to services worldwide. Citizens can now choose from hundreds of public and private transportation apps and services, providing mobility with an infinite range of possibilities.
However, with these possibilities can also come problems. One issue that big cities have been facing since the start of transportation is pollution. Cities consume around 80% of the world's energy supply and, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, highway vehicles themselves release about 1.7 billion tons (1.5 billion metric tons) of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year.
These numbers are mainly due to the fact more than half of the world's population now lives in urban areas and needs to move. In its 11th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), the UN estimates that by 2050, the number of individuals living in these areas will rise to 6.5 billion people or two-thirds of humanity. Therefore, the way energy is consumed in large cities, as well as the way we travel within them, must move towards the use of cleaner energies and vehicles that allow for sustainable transportation.
The future of cabs lies in drones
Nevertheless, although technological advancements can lead to problems, they can also be the solution: drones have provided a ray of hope for those institutions, companies and individuals who believe that flexible aerial city transportation, also called 'Urban Air Mobility' (UAM), is possible. In fact, the essential transport for both goods and people in smart cities will be drones.
Given that transportation accounts for around 60% of global oil demand, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), mobility powered by drones will facilitate the decongestion of cities by minimizing traditional road traffic, contributing to the reduction of noise pollution and, of course, to the decarbonization of the energy sector, not only in traditional urban transport, but also in terms of urban air mobility and traditional aviation. These will play a very important role, although it is yet to be established due to lack of regulation and standards both locally and internationally.
Among the different types of aerial vehicles, one of the newest technologies, notable both for its efficiency and its environmental friendliness, is the all-electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) system. These multi-rotor vehicles have vertical take-off and landing capabilities in the already existing vertiports (drone landing and take-off spaces for both the delivery of goods and the transportation of people to other parts of the city) and, in some cases, autonomous driving.
From Singapore to Spain: what's being done internationally
These new cabs are no longer just futuristic dreams. In Singapore, pioneering company Volocopter presented one of the first vertiport designs at the 2019 Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) World Congress. It not only has its VoloPort vertiport, it also has its electric VoloCity air cab, the VoloIQ operating system and the VoloDrone for heavy-lift cargo transport. In fact, the company recently completed its first public US test of its air taxi.
The United Kingdom plans to open the first airport for delivery drones and flying taxis by the end of the year. The air cab company EHang, based in Guangzhou (China), plans to build the first European "vertiport" in Italy in 2021. In Spain, Ferrovial announced a plan to build 20 heliports for flying cabs in Spain.
Even Uber was an early player in the flying taxi business with Uber Elevate, which it sold in 2020 to Joby Aviation. Other large companies such as Airbus have carried out numerous prototypes with different characteristics and capabilities, such as Vahana or CityAirbus or Pop.Up Next, the flying cab created jointly with Audi and ItalDesign.
The solution of mobility in cities
Who would have imagined 50 years ago that you could order a cab to take you through the skies? What belonged to science fiction is taking shape day by day. More and more companies are developing new technologies and solutions to make ordering a taxi by smartphone to travel the city through the air a reality.
As history shows, humans have been using hired cabs practically as long as cities have existed. eVTOLs could help create new mobility services with the potential to alleviate the most entrenched mobility problems and move together towards sustainable mobility. Our role now is to help develop digital solutions that will enable us to manage air traffic, safety and innovation in the next era of aviation and the new cab service: the flying taxi.