The United Nations published a report at the end of March 2020 that stated:
We [world] are currently facing a global health crisis … one that is killing people, spreading human suffering, and upending people’s lives. But this is much more than a health crisis. It is a human crisis. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is attacking societies at their core.
COVID-19 has transformed all areas of our lives, destroying economies, leading to mass-scale lay-offs, and mentally setting all communities back. We are all, however, now trying to see opportunities in these difficult times. So what’s ahead for Urban Air Mobility (UAM)?
Digital technologies have been widely used as a positive enabler in this crisis, facilitating business continuity and connecting people more than ever through the use of video calling, online conferences and webinars. Living in the Information Age, it is likely that we will continue to see an increase in connectivity and the ever-growing use of smartphone apps. A ‘digital addiction’ (that let’s admit we all developed, and suffered from, in the time of government-posed lockdown measures), may only prove to be beneficial for the UAM vehicle manufacturers and operators.
While there is so much focus on the electrical vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle itself, it is the flight-hailing service that will actually help transport passengers from A to B. In the case of Uber Elevate, a company that is thought to be one of the first major players actively developing their vision of the UAM utopia, there is only a small amount of extra work that needs to be done.
For them, the required digital infrastructure that is the backbone of air taxi operations is just an extra vehicle option on the Uber app that most of us are using on a regular basis. Uber Air is set to become an aerial alternative to already existing ground options including taxis, scooters and e-bikes. In fact, it would complement them all. “The goal is to bring everything into one place,” the Uber spokesperson said.
During lockdown, some of us quickly grew tired of the 2m minimum social-distancing rules and the need to stay indoors. Some, on the other hand, reevaluated their attitudes to strangers and those ‘outside your household’. Can you trust the person you are car-pooling with? Do you feel safe both in terms of your well-being and physical health?
One potential effect of quarantine and the ‘staycation’ is the public wanting more privacy in terms of transportation. It is highly likely that many of us will want to continue travelling further apart, with some kind of social distancing becoming a new, if short-term, feature of life. Society might want to separate further and travel in smaller vehicles over using public transport, in which case eVTOLs have a significant potential to see a faster mass-scale adaptation.
Travellers particularly concerned about their health will want assurance that all necessary precautions were taken to minimise the risks of getting infected. Potential future ‘travel norms’ may include obligatory pre-boarding passenger health screenings, the use of ultraviolet light to disinfect aircraft interior, and innovative ways of on-board air filtration. Would this apply to eVTOLs as well?
In their recent study on the impact of COVID-19 on passenger travelling behaviour, consulting firm Oliver Wyman concluded that 52% of the respondents were uncomfortable using ride-sharing. While it looks like ride-sharing and public transport could face avoidance, there is a high chance we may now be willing to pay that a little extra to have a more private journey embarking an eVTOL and not taking a tube or a coach.
In the aforementioned Oliver Wyman COVID-19 Traveller survey, the public felt more comfortable travelling domestically, as well as favouring urban destinations over rural by 40%. It is clear that some of this is due to the respondents' desire to reconnect with family they may not have seen for several months. However, it is also evident that there is a renewed interest in supporting tourism on a more local scale.
With London being the primary city in the UK considered for future UAM implementation, the use of eVTOLs for sightseeing, similar to what the EHang is already doing in China, may tick both boxes. Not only would it enable the public to get exposed to the urban energy and culture the UK’s capital has to offer, it would also provide an unforgettable experience of having a bird’s eye view of the city.
Making the most of the latest technologies, eVTOLs would help us gain a truly different perspective on things so familiar, as long as we are ready for that journey.