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Flying taxis are a fantasy distracting from real transport solutions

Plans for air taxis are either impractical or likely to be prohibitively expensive for all but the very rich, or both

The Jetsons have so much to answer for. Thanks to that opening sequence of the 1960s space age cartoon in which George Jetson takes the kids to school and heads to work, a generation grew up thinking that by the time they were adults, they too would drive a flying car.

But only a certain kind of guy, generally a certain kind of Silicon Valley guy, seems to remain obsessed with the notion. Sorry, but it is mostly about guys. This fetish is a big roll-eye topic for just about all women I know who either work in the tech industry or write about it. The majority of us do not care about flying cars.

If you’re old enough, you might remember how breathless Silicon Valley got about the Segway, the giant two-wheeled self-balancing scooter. Until the big product reveal in 2001, the serious speculation – based on promises of a breakthrough innovation that would revolutionise transport and solve traffic problems – was that some sort of flying or levitating vehicle was coming.

It turned out to be a dorky-looking terrestrial scooter, which is nifty, but revolutionise transport it did not, and it’s not the imagined Segway Star Wars flying motorcycle many predicted.

Flying cars are again popping up in the news as a ‘just around the corner’ development, either in the form of drone-based human transport, or in old school, James Bondian wings-bolted-to-sports car formats, with a touch of Marty McFly.

Last month, the UK government launched a Future of Flight action plan – yes, it’s actually called an “action plan”, in an intrepid Boys’ Own vibe that says much about the adult Conservative party – that envisions the first flying taxis taking off in two years with a full national service by 2028.

This, in a country with a crumbling underground in London and a national rail network that has grown increasingly dismal, expensive and disconnected ever since the Conservatives (them again) had the great idea to privatise it in 1994. The answer to this transport mess is apparently flying taxis.

Silicon Valley is, of course, full of such plans. The congested Valley motorways are regularly cited as the reason everyone needs air taxis – why sit in a snarl of traffic on Highway 101 when you could be whizzing aloft between Santa Clara and San Francisco in 15 minutes?

This proposition has been floated by Valley-based electric flying sports car company Alef, for its Model A flying car, and by another Californian company, Joby Aviation, both of which have received very limited FAA permission.

Joby calls this “electric aerial ride-sharing”. In a 2021 interview with consultancy McKinsey, a Joby executive (a woman! A rare exception to prove the mostly boys rule) said: “Imagine waking up in the morning and thinking you could drive your car to work – but that might take an hour, an hour and a half. Instead, you just open up an app. A car picks you up and brings you to a heliport five minutes away. You ride in one of our aircraft. The flight takes 10 minutes. At the other end, there’s a car waiting for you. The entire ride is seamless, convenient, and affordable.”

This commute involves three different vehicles, two of them still being cars, on roads. How is this going to be affordable? Or efficient? Or not another buzzing sound irritant for those of us below?

The UK plan envisions a mere 10 minutes will be needed from arrival at an air taxi port to take off. Oh, please. Look at airports!

Presumably safety screenings and some sort of identity check will be required, as being aloft with rideshare strangers offers a different set of security challenges than hailing a ground cab. It’s hard to see flying commutes as a prospect for anyone but wealthy tech guys irritated by regional traffic caused by the rest of us trying to get to work, often at the companies they own.

By the way, that Joby interview was predicting an aerial commuting service could be operating by ... 2024. Nope.

In 2018, Uber’s former air taxi division uberAIR was planning for a 2023 service. UberAIR, though, is no more, having been offloaded in 2020 to ... Joby. Then there was Google offshoot KittyHawk, the special baby of Google cofounder Larry Page, which spent years and hundreds of millions on its Flyer vehicle before the company was wound up in September 2022. One employee described the Flyer as a costly “solution looking for a problem”, as executives struggled to brainstorm feasible use cases.

I’m left thinking about the interview I did in the Merrion Hotel in late 2008 with a Virgin Galactic executive, who confidently told me the company would be offering commercial space tourism by 2010. Fifteen years later, space tourism is available only in extremely limited form, primarily to tech millionaires and billionaires.

How about this action plan: better global government investment in national public transport, in funding research on greener transport and in restructuring cities towards greater liveability. More boring than flying cars, yes, but actual solutions for real problems.

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