On a foggy Monday afternoon, a helicopter crash in midtown Manhattan took a pilot’s life.

This fatal accident in New York City yesterday highlights the pitfalls of airborne traffic, adding to worries that a slew of new robotaxi companies may face a long road before their goods are ready for widespread use.

Still, there is no lack of startups touting new technology, saying these types of accidents will become obsolete with algorithms and technology in control. Governments in places like Dubai and Singapore have enthusiastically given tech startups opportunities to test self-driving vehicles like flying robotaxis in hopes of reshaping the city’s transportation system.

While manufacturers and service providers pitch their products’ green credentials, seeking to shape public opinion and drum up cash from investors, some analysts believe a deeper look into the feasibility of robotaxis and the claims of a positive social impact is warranted.

Crucially, the value for social impact investors is far from obvious: industry experts see air taxis remaining a luxury service without a clear environmental or carbon footprint improvement.

“Uber is losing lots of money and need to keep a hold of their investors,” Campbell, a former aerospace engineer, says. “I think it’s a sexy narrative for Uber to show their investors that their moving towards autonomously-piloted helicopters.”

Leading the Pack

In Europe, companies like Volocopter in Germany started planning and testing their air taxis this year. Airbus, based in the Netherlands, has been developing Vahana, an autonomous single-seat aircraft.

In Asia, China’s EHang is poised to be the first manufacturer to enter the market, anticipating strong demand from emergency responders, air taxi services and tourists, according to the optimistic predictions in a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article.

Austria’s FACC has agreed to supply parts to EHang for its passenger drones for beginning this year. EHang’s prototypes have logged 7,000 hours, Bloomberg said.

Dubai may be the first in the Middle East to permit flying robotaxis, expecting to launch them by 2020 with the help of flying taxi firm, Vimana Global, based in the United States.

While Asia moves aggressively to make robotaxi service a reality, regulatory and economical hurdles have slowed efforts in the U.S and Europe.

‘Very Experimental’

Companies like Volocopter, based in Germany, and EHang plan to begin selling their autonomous flying vehicles within the next two years. The Volocopter 2X can go 17 miles in 27 minutes, with a top speed of 63 miles per hour.

The copters’ range is anywhere from 25 minutes, or about 22 miles, to 2.5 hours or 225 miles, according to Bloomberg.

Research scientists like Ashley Nunes, from the Center for Transportation Logistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, think the benefits of robotaxis aren’t clear.

“Who are these companies actually competing with?” he said. “Are they trying to replace people using trains with flying robotrains? The technology behind these devices is still very experimental.”

Nunes, who studies transportation safety and economics, analyzes the financial practicality of adopting autonomous taxi options in a research piece. He says the safety and environmental benefits come at a cost.

While autonomous vehicles and taxis might reduce air pollution, road accidents and driving hazards, these benefits result in higher costs for production and consumers.  

“Flying robotaxis will just become fancy helicopters, a luxury,” said Harry Campbell, founder of The Rideshare Guy and author of The Rideshare Guide.

“The fares for ride-sharing services became a lot cheaper because people took more and more trips,” he said. “I don’t think the costs for automated helicopters can come down to the same level where the flying robotaxis can be as cheap.”

Carbon Footprint

In addition to costs, there are also questions about the legitimacy of how ecologically helpful the robotaxis truly are and how much time these flying robotaxis need to recharge.

“What is the source of electrification for these robo taxis? Is it the coal? If it is, then are we truly preventing carbon footprinting?” Nunes says. “It all comes down to the trade-offs. You can have the best technology, but if the economics doesn’t make sense, then we’re not ready for this.”

Campbell agrees that there is potential in going electric and the automation of vehicles, but if it doesn’t make financial sense to companies, there won’t be an incentive for investors.

“These vehicles are still in their early days,” says Nunes. “Prototypes from Uber and Airbus still work in limited settings. Most devices like the Volocopter can only hold two people sitting.”

One of the 100 different electric-aircraft programs in development worldwide, Lillium GmbH, based in Munich, has an electric-powered, jet-engined, five-seat model.

While Nunes agrees Lillium is one of the leaders in the automated flying robotaxis technologically, he is not sure if economically the model works.

Campbell agrees that there is a difference between what is marketed by companies like Uber and what is the realistic product.

“The labor costs for Uber and Lyft are too high, and I don’t think flying robotaxis will help them,” he says.

The possibility of flying automated taxis may seem possible sooner than later, but the economic and environmental potential of the devices need to be considered before marketing them for the public.
“There may be a social impact, but is there a return of investment? The price points are higher with these robotaxis. Flying robotaxis require larger environments, higher capital costs, properly organized charging stations, and human resources,” Nunes says. “You can have the best technology, but if the economics doesn’t make sense — then we’re not ready for this.”