More than half the viewers of TDK Ventures’ Digital Transformation Week (DX Week) Mobility panel session who responded to the digital poll during the session believe autonomous vehicles present the most impactful innovation that can come to fruition in the next five years. Representatives from industrial, investment, startup, government, and non-profit sectors were evenly split on whether those self-operating vehicles will be ground-based or air-based, with 26 percent favoring self-driving cars and an identical percentage leaning toward air taxis and delivery drones.
Florian Holzapfel, director of the Institute of Flight System Dynamics at The Technical University of Munich, who was a speaker during the Mobility session said he was not surprised that a large portion of the technically savvy viewers was intrigued by aerial vehicles as the most promising advancement. He made a distinction between air taxis and delivery drones.
“With air taxis, the big question is, ‘do they really have to be fully automated, or will they have a pilot on board in the beginning?’ It’s a completely new mode of transportation,” he said. “It’s a disruption because, especially with the potential for vertical takeoff and landing, it is something that is different from everything that came before. So, it can provide solutions to new transport demands.”
With most consumers in the West living in cities and much of the rest of the world catching up, Sara Jones, senior vice president at New Vista Capital, and Mobility panel speaker, said the idea of autonomous flying vehicles likely strikes a chord because of the obvious use cases and convenience issues they could solve.
“By 2050, 60 percent of the world will be living in an urban environment, and when we talk about drone delivery, most of the last-mile use cases are in the suburbs or urban environment. And, of course, air taxis are all about how we can connect our metro areas,” she continued. “So, when we talk about the things that impact people’s daily lives, we have to consider the rise of e-commerce and obtaining goods. The other big thing is that people spend a lot of time in traffic, so the idea that we could make it easier to get to the places we want to go invigorates people’s imaginations in terms of unlocking that third space of air as a public resource.”
While the technology behind autonomous rolling and flying vehicles is exciting both for consumers and industry participants working to perfect it. The key, said Faction Founder and CEO Ain McKendrick, a speaker on the Mobility panel, is whether and when researchers and entrepreneurs can apply it to cost-effective products and services that can be operated profitably.
“Similar to light electric vehicles, drones are competing against somebody who’s willing to drive a 10-year-old car, to complete a delivery to your house for extremely low wages through gig-worker services,” McKendrick said. “We know that is not sustainable because they are already maxing out and are not able to get enough drivers to do these applications. But everything we try to deploy, there’s going to be a price point we need to hit where we can not only apply the technology but also perform the services at the right price. It’s going to be exciting for the next few years because you will see light vehicles, drones, and combinations of them and how they might even work together to deliver on this stuff.”
He said solving the challenges associated with autonomous vehicles will also solve many of the problems surrounding environmental sustainability, accessibility, and the democratization of technology.
Holzapfel, however, does not see drones and air taxis as a solution to gridlock.
“For urban downtown areas, urban [air] mobility will never be a significant means for reducing congestion,” he said. The future lies not in taking people “from the supermarket to the house, but from one village to the city on the other side of the mountain. Urban air mobility’s big chance is in regions that are hard to access — areas with a lot of islands, mountains, where it would be expensive and complex to build ground infrastructure or where you can save a lot of time [delivering people and goods by air],” he explained. “I see us eventually coming up with systems with a range of 200, 300 kilometers, giving us the ability to establish a lot of connections.”
Ciconia Flights Founder and CEO Moshe Cohen, also a Mobility panel speaker, however, believes aerial mobility will reduce the stress on cities’ roadways.
“In Paris alone, 500,000 small packages are delivered every day,” he said. “Imagine if half of them could be delivered by drone. It would impact [ground] transportation.”
Many of the logistical hurdles are not that difficult to overcome, he insisted.
“Building a port for air taxis’ vertical takeoff and landing is much simpler than installing a subway station,” because it would require little excavation and could make use of existing infrastructure. He said taxi ports, like helipads, could even be built on existing rooftops. The taxis are lightweight, so the buildings would not need to be retrofitted with new fortifications.
“It is not far away. It is achievable.”
Maha Achour, founder and CEO of Metawave Corp., who was also a panel speaker at the DX Week Mobility Session, agreed that drones could alleviate the difficulty of delivering medication, emergency supplies, food, and other essentials to remote areas or regions struck by natural disasters. She focused on drones/UAVs and their potential to open the world of exploration and travel, needs and desires that — like supply chain challenges — became starker during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would love to be one of the first ones to fly a drone into the jungle or use one to follow safaris and see nature without leaving my house,” she said.
She, too, begged to differ with Holzapfel’s assertion that urban aerial mobility will ever be a significant means for reducing congestion.
She cited a recent visit to New York, where bridge and tunnel closures extended her trip from the airport to her hotel to two hours.
“If I just had an urban aerial vehicle, it would have taken me maybe 10 minutes,” she said. “Productivity is key here. Why do we use Uber and decide not to drive? Because we want to be on our phones and laptops as we are driven from point A to point B. It will be the same with urban air mobility. It’s going to take time, not because the technology is not there,” but because the regulatory environment must be established.
She said the bureaucracy pushes UAVs into the 10-year time frame, but New Vista’s Jones believes “entry into service” will come sooner.
“It’s going to scale in different jurisdictions at different times,” Jones said. “There are areas of the world, like Singapore and Dubai, which are very leading-edge. The United States is not really leaning in but waiting to see the proof in the data generated from other jurisdictions. The islands use case is a great example of where we might be able to prove out the data faster and bring it back to more conservative jurisdictions.”
She said the development and availability of electrical charging stations and other infrastructure will dictate the pace of adoption. Many municipal electric grids are not ready to accommodate the huge demand swings that come when UAVs connect to and disconnect from them.
Managing unpiloted traffic, intervehicle communication and sensing, and other safety issues, of course, present additional challenges. These issues, Jones, said, likely will demand piloted vehicles as an interim step.
McKendrick said aerial mobility captures our imaginations “because ground-based is terrible right now, with everyone sitting in traffic.”
He said his company works to right-size vehicles and get more of them off the road, “but air mobility faces the same challenges we face in ground-based in building a real business. Whatever we deploy, it has to be competitive. Combination solutions, I think, are the future.”
This final segment of the mobility panel during TDK Ventures’ DX Week provided a fitting end to a week of insightful commentary, provocative opinions, and inspirational pathways toward ushering in a new era of global digital transformation. The ecosystem response to DX Week and its predecessor, Energy Week, has been tremendously positive. TDK Ventures plans to continue hosting experts from around the world for future conferences on the technologies that will make the world more viable, sustainable and equitable. Look for the second annual Energy Week event in early 2023.