Cabbies of the sky

Rush hour could see a flurry of automated vehicles weaving their way above the cityscape

Driverless vehicle

An ambitious vision for self-piloted air transport was shared at the New Statesman Emerging Technology Conference (20 November, Institute of Engineering and Technology, London).

Airbus’ general manager for urban air mobility, Mathias Thomsen, shared progress on autonomous aircraft being developed by the company including an ‘air taxi’ built to carry between one and four people.

Mr Thomsen explained that the single-passenger electric vehicle, Vahana, is scheduled to undergo trials over the next couple of months.

“While it is just a prototype at this stage it is not too far from being a product,” he added.

The autonomous aircraft takes off and lands vertically like a helicopter.

Mr Thomsen explained that while the running costs of the Vahana is comparable to that of a regular vehicle, the unit cost for the technology is similar to a Ferrari.

He predicted that the technology will be adopted using a transport system model rather than individual ownership.

“I think it’s quite unlikely that we will see a Vahana in every garage,” Mr Thomsen added.

The optionally-piloted CityAirbus is larger and more robust than the Vahana, but more work will need to be done on the battery before it can become commercially viable.

Mr Thomsen said it is hoped that a prototype version of CityAirbus will be developed by the end of next year.

An on-demand service called Voom is also being developed that will allow city dwellers to book a helicopter on a shared basis through an app.

Mr Thomsen highlighted the exciting potential of self-piloted aircraft.

“It will allow us to move in new ways that we can’t really imagine yet,” he added.

A free ride

University of Warwick experiential engineering Professor Paul Jennings told delegates about his research on driverless cars at the Warwick Manufacturing Group.

Professor Jennings highlighted that 90% of all road accidents were caused by driver mistakes.

“If we can eliminate human error, then there’s potential to reduce the number of accidents on our roads,” he emphasised.

Developing autonomous vehicles also has the potential to help people who are unable or unwilling to drive, Professor Jennings observed.

It could also be a time-saving measure, he highlighted, with the average UK driver spending 235 hours driving each year.

“There is potential to use that time in a different way,” Professor Jennings added.

The challenges around the development of driverless vehicles included making sure the technology is dependable, affordable and commercially viable.

Gaining public acceptance and trust in autonomous vehicles is also key, Professor Jennings stressed.

“We have been fortunate in the UK in that the Government has seen the potential of this technology,” he noted.

As part of Budget announcements, the Government signalled an intention to have driverless cars on UK roads by 2021. 

Image credit: Airbus