No, it’s not in the super-developed but distant Shanghai or Shenzhen, nor the Silicon Valley. It’s good old Vienna, the centre of Europe if you like, where a joint enterprise of an Austrian and a Chinese company is about to make The Jetsons-style flying taxis a real thing.
When the futurists and sci-fi writers of the ’50s predicted flying cars, probably a few if any imagined that no one will sit behind the sticks. What separates this proposed flying taxi from the rest of the crowd that it is unmanned.
The EHang 216 pilot-less flying taxi is product of the Chinese drone maker company Ehang, but its Austrian strategic partner, FACC is responsible for the local production. This drone taxi is so much in an advanced stage that the company accepts and receives thousands of pre-orders. The manufacturing facilities are under construction, mass production is set for late summer or early autumn.
Now back to the vehicle. The EHang 216 has been under testing for two years. The autonomous, VTOL aerial vehicle has room for two passengers. The 340 kg electric quadcopter drone has a maximum cruising speed of 80 miles or 130 km/h, which is comparable to the first helicopters. Early access price is $340,000, but the company hopes that mass production would bring it down to about $110,000.
With its 16 engines on the eight circular rods, it’s not so loud as a small chopper but its presence is still a lot more obvious than of a regular drone Andreas Perotti, chief spokersperson of FACC, admits that the vehicle is still a prototype and one of challenges to overcome is the noise level. Flying in the thing feels like riding in an elevator, or so it is said.
The pilot-less product of EHang is not a worldwide first. Airbus and Boeing are working on similar unmanned air taxi projects. But the joint enterprise of the Chinese company and FACC may be the closest to a commercial reality. It’s up the local governments to implement legislation applicable for large drones that carry passengers.
And there is the question of perception of safety. Riding with an autonomous vehicle that moves in two dimensions is one thing, flying in one may be another. No amount if airbags will save you if the passenger drone ride hits an electrical cable or colludes with another aerial vehicle (then again, this happens with helicopters all the time). Early crashes and, God forbid, deaths in or caused by autonomous vehicles can really drain the interest of the hoped audience.
For Ehang and FACC perception, not the lack of regulation is the bigger challenge. Nevertheless, the partners are willing to take the risk for a high reward, to fill the void of urban air mobility in Europe.