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February 1, 2022Episode 26. Channeling George Jetson: We could have flying cars sooner than we think.
FEATURING: Jeff Borowiec
The concept of urban air mobility (UAM) envisions the safe and efficient movement of people and cargo at low altitudes within populated areas. Many complex issues present challenges, but as TTI Senior Research Scientist Jeff Borowiec explains, electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (EVTOLs) can help us realize the benefits and promise of UAM.
About Our Guest
Senior Research Scientist
Jeff Borowiec is part of TTI’s Infrastructure Investment Analysis Program in College Station, Texas, where he also serves as the aviation practice leader. He has more than 27 years of experience in a variety of areas that primarily include aviation system planning and research, aviation education, and transportation economics and finance. He currently serves at chair of the Transportation Research Board’s Standing Committee on Aviation System Planning. He is an instrument-rated private pilot and also holds a remote pilot certificate with an sUAS rating.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Welcome. This is Thinking Transportation. Conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Jetsons, an animated television series about a space-age family and their futuristic conveniences that included — among other things — flying cars. Decades later, those airborne sedans have a more scientific label: Electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles. And with billions of investment dollars to back up the idea, low-altitude urban air travel is now much closer to reality than many of us thought possible. Jeff Borowiec is a senior research scientist at TTI, and he has answers to a lot of the questions that we might have on this subject. Thanks for being our guest today, Jeff.
Jeff Borowiec (guest) (01:13):
Yeah. Happy to be here. Thanks, Bernie.
Bernie Fette (01:15):
When we say flying cars, people might imagine a lot of different visions or ideas of what exactly we mean. Since we don’t have the benefit of video at the moment, can you begin by describing exactly what an electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle is?
Jeff Borowiec (01:32):
Sure. So we’re still a little bit away from flying cars, although you may have seen some concepts out there. But when we refer to electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, or EV-TOL vehicles, we’re talking about a new type of aircraft, electric-powered, battery-powered, that has capabilities really like a helicopter. And so these concepts really have been spoken about in terms of this other concept of urban air mobility or UAM that we’re hearing a lot about.
Bernie Fette (02:02):
Okay, where exactly are we in the research and development phase? How long ago did work start in this area and how long before we see lots of them in the air?
Jeff Borowiec (02:12):
<laugh> Well, it’s tough for me to say how long the development has been going on, but certainly for quite a few years. We didn’t get to where we are overnight. So there’s a lot of companies in this space that are developing EV-TOL aircraft. And a lot of them have a lot of backing from some very big companies in the technology sector and also in the automobile sector, too. There are still some issues to be ironed out, mostly with respect to aircraft certification, you know, are these new aircraft going to be certified and certified for what? And, and then how are they gonna fly and be integrated into our existing airspace structure that we have today?
Bernie Fette (02:52):
Okay, you mentioned the different kinds of companies that are involved. The funding for this research is not limited to the venture capital firms that we often associate with high-risk investment. What should the list of interested companies — the list that includes familiar names like Toyota and Hyundai — what does that list tell us about the realistic prospects for this form of travel?
Jeff Borowiec (03:14):
Well, I think it certainly has gotten the attention of a lot of folks. You know, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen new aviation technologies or concepts, you know, come to light. Not that long ago, we saw the small aircraft transportation system, SATs. We saw the VLJs, the very light jets, and they were supposed to darken the skies, you know, around us because of density of their use. Um, and that never really happened. But what we did see from that was we did see some new lighter jet aircraft emerge, but by and large, the whole concept of the small aircraft transportation system never materialized the way a lot of folks thought. This time, it appears to be different. There’s hundreds of millions of dollars being invested by these companies and really billions when you expand it out across the horizon of companies. And so it has a different feel.
Jeff Borowiec (04:01):
The folks that are involved are folks that are not just the venture capital folks, but also folks that have a long history in manufacturing and in using the technologies. And so that’s kind of how we get to this urban air mobility concept is kind of a confluence of the new technology, the new systems, a whole new vision of sustainable power, electric power. And we’re seeing a, a lot more work being done by, uh, NASA and the FAA with respect to how this is gonna play out with respect to aircraft certification and airspace management. So it definitely has a different feel.
Bernie Fette (04:33):
You again mentioned that these are electric-powered vehicles. Why electric? Is it because of weight, air quality? Why is that?
Jeff Borowiec (04:40):
You know, electric just like with the challenges with vehicles on the surface, it presents its own set of challenges. But it’s a more sustainable fuel. It does have its own challenges with battery disposal, not to mention, can we get to the power that we need to operate aircraft at any kind of a scale? But it’s definitely cleaner. There are issues with some general aviation fuels. So there’s been a lot of movement and research and advancements in more sustainable aviation fuels. So, it’s battery because we’re taking advantage of kind of where all of this is going on the surface side and the aviation side is going into that direction too. And we’re starting to see some larger electric-powered aircraft, two small airliner type of vehicles, uh, be developed with options for purchase on them from some major airlines, too. So it’s not just these smaller two- to five- passenger EV-TOL vehicles we’re talking about. Electric is moving into larger scale, too. But like I said, the challenges persist as to, uh, whether you can get the power needed to go much larger. Like we’ve seen on the surface side, the battery power technology continues to improve. And so we’re still looking to see what kind of advancements we can take advantage of and how much further we can go.
Bernie Fette (05:53):
And since you brought up the issue of challenges, let’s just stay on that for a minute, if we can. You talked about how the actual development of technology is a challenge. What about other issues like public opinion, public acceptance, electric grid? You know, you must have a long list of those.
Jeff Borowiec (06:09):
Sure. Well, there’s no shortage of concerns. The public opinion, you know, we’re learning about and some folks adapt to technology and are fine with it. Others are a little more hesitant. So I think younger generations may be more inclined to adopt it. So there’s different levels of public acceptance. You know, if we see them materialize the way a lot of folks have been talking about, then we’re gonna see a lot of them. A lot of these companies are, are saying, well, we want to save so much time per day to the average commuter. And if that’s the case, then we’re gonna see a lot of them flying. And so it’s not just the potential noise impacts that people may be concerned about, but also the visual, this aesthetic impact of seeing so many of them flying where they’re not used to seeing them. And so it’s like any other new technology it’s gonna take some time it get used to, but public perception certainly, and public acceptance is certainly gonna be on the radar, so to speak, for a while.
Bernie Fette (07:04):
And you mentioned some parallels with other technologies like self-driving cars. Not all that long ago, those predictions about self-driving cars were that they would be common by now. But, that hasn’t happened. Do you see any evidence of overhyping the promise of, and I, I hesitate to use the word flying cars, but is there any chance that we could be getting ahead of ourselves in this dream?
Jeff Borowiec (07:28):
Yeah. I mean, that’s always a caution, is we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. There clearly are issues that we need to work on, but from a technology standpoint, just to put this out there, I mean, we’ve had aircraft with auto-land technology for quite a while. The thought that an airplane would be able to land itself or take off by itself — I don’t think that’s really as farfetched. I think that while we have a lot to concern ourselves with, of automated aircraft, automated vehicles on the ground have a lot more conflict points. In the air, oftentimes aircraft are flown by just turning a button on an autopilot or flight director so we can see it’ll turn and climb by itself. And so there’s a lot of automation already in the cockpit of an aircraft. To me, I personally, I think less of the technology being a limitation and more, of, you know, other things to be the limitations. We still have the airspace management issue, which is a big deal. And so if we’re talking about these operating below five or 600 feet, then we have to talk about how we integrate them into the existing airspace system, especially in urban areas where we might have other airports or busy airports. There still are challenges that need to be worked out about how that happens safely, especially if we’re in a low-visibility environment. And so we still have challenges in airspace management.
Bernie Fette (08:53):
Right. And I’m glad we’re getting into the safety topic. ‘Cause that’s something I think that certainly belongs in this conversation. If we look back a hundred years or so, we see that the automobiles came first and traffic safety laws in lots of cases followed later. The result was sometimes rather messy. What’s being done now to focus on the airborne traffic laws so that we can avoid some of the chaos that we saw in that example in the early 1900s?
Jeff Borowiec (09:22):
Well, the laws about airspace, if you ask the Federal Aviation Administration, I think they’ll tell you that they govern the airspace down to the ground, but there’s, there’s still some debate from some perspectives on this is still something that’s being sorted out and that will have to take place before we have any subsequent move forward on that. So it’s probably not fair for me to comment on that because I’m sure there’s still gonna be some legal conversations about this, but it’ll be interesting to see where those airspace rights come down and, and who’s gonna be able to operate these aircraft, uh, from where. You know, we’re talking about highly dense urban areas flying in and out of maybe airports to drop people off at the airport instead of taking a cab. We’re talking about landing on rooftops, on parking garages, things like this. So there’s just still a lot to be ironed out, but it’s gonna —
Bernie Fette (10:14):
Those conversations are under way, right?
Jeff Borowiec (10:15):
Those conversations are underway, not only with respect to how we’re gonna deal with the airspace, but how we’re going to govern their takeoff areas. The so-called vertiports — a vertiport can range from anywhere from a concrete landing pad, like a helipad to a fancy rooftop pad with terminals and all kinds of other amenities. And so there is no official FAA guidance on vertiports right now. The FAA advisory circular on vertiports is under design right now. And so we don’t have any official guidance on what those will look like, but that’ll come soon. And then I think they’ll begin to tackle the airspace, and the airspace may be different like it is with our airports, the airspace issues and challenges are gonna be different for every site. They’ll have to work those out to make sure that there’s no interference from buildings or other obstructions and also any other interferences to the navigation systems and things like that.
Bernie Fette (11:07):
Yeah, and hearing you describe the different places where these vehicles would take off and land, makes me wonder a little about the infrastructure that we have now and how there have been some predictions that we might not need as much surface parking area in some places, depending on what happens with our traditional cars and pickups in the future. So how things unfold for where those vehicles take off and land might be influenced by what happens with the infrastructure we have for our other current forms of transportation, if I’m making any sense here.
Jeff Borowiec (11:46):
Well, I suppose it could, if we’re starting to see some repurposing of some facilities, I mean, there’s a, a vertiport company that’s partnered with a company that focuses on parking and parking garages. And so we can kind of see those synergies there and what they’re thinking. And so it’s possible that we see existing parking garages, repurposed. I, I, it’s interesting to note that a lot of these companies, the EV-TOL companies are looking to build their own aircraft, operate their own surface and own their own infrastructure. So that presents other issues. When we talk about infrastructure, if, if we’ve got two or three of these companies that are serving the same area, are we really gonna be having three different vertiports, complexes in the same area? And just like on the electric vehicle side, on the ground, we see issues emerging with the interoperability and all of them may have their own charging plugs, you know, that are, um, proprietary. They may have their own systems, their own power needs. And so everything could be different. And those are things that we need to sort out. If we have six operators in a downtown area, I don’t know that we want to have six different vertiports downtown. That really complicates their space management issue. So you can see that we’re still kind of early in this. We do have aircraft certification going on with some of them in the U.S., But we still have a long ways to go.
Bernie Fette (13:00):
Yeah. Looking at this just a little more broadly for a moment, I’m, I’m curious about what’s driving the whole idea. How much of it is driven by practical needs, for instance, as a remedy, as one remedy for roadway congestion, for instance, and how much of it is driven by other motivations, whatever those motivations might be. Can you talk about that just a minute?
Jeff Borowiec (13:22):
Well, initially this concept I think was really kind of brought to light by Uber and their Uber Elevate organization, which has since been sold off to Joby Aviation. And Uber Elevate was the first to publish a white paper, I think, five, six years ago on this topic and say, this is kind of what we expect, you know, that we can achieve. And we can do this to save you time. And we can also do it at the same cost, but those cost points were assuming that the vehicle and the service were fully automated. So there was no pilot on board, so you didn’t have that pilot cost. So something kind of further on down the road. And so really it was to say, “Hey, we can save you this money. We can put you above the traffic and we can do it safely. And we can do it at the same cost.”
Jeff Borowiec (14:09):
And there’s different markets too, for this, not all of it is necessarily for commuting. Some of our work that we’ve done has shown that there’s really kind of three initial markets that are being looked at. One is this air metro market, which is kind of like public transportation, if you look at it. So this is the, you know, would be regularly scheduled, predetermined routes type of thing. Then there’s the air taxi market, which is kind of like what you would use an Uber for is say, oh, I need to, you know, I’m gonna go out to dinner and we’ll just take an Uber. That would be the air taxi. So it’s a door-to-door service and it’s not on a scheduled route. And then there’s last-mile cargo delivery that folks are also looking into. And, of course, there are limitations on the weight for that too, but those are kind of three of the initial focus areas for these. And if you look at motivations across those three areas, you can start to see that what’s about saving time without compromising the cost and also to reduce congestion both in terms of passenger and cargo movement, too.
Bernie Fette (15:10):
Okay. Is anybody against this idea?
Jeff Borowiec (15:14):
<laugh> That’s a good question. I’m sure that there are folks that don’t wanna see more aircraft in their views. I think that the folks that are probably are against it are folks that may be the ones to be impacted the most by it, whether it’s from noise or from additional traffic that it brings. But usually what I’ve seen is not folks that are opposed to it. It’s just folks that wouldn’t necessarily use it because they don’t see themselves doing it for whatever reasons they, they don’t like to fly or they think it’s gonna cost too much or wouldn’t benefit them. But I imagine that there are folks, just like with expansions of other modes, there are folks that are gonna be impacted. They may be against it. Yeah.
Bernie Fette (15:54):
Yeah. And only a few years ago, TTI did a study that asked the question about self-driving cars. Would you, or would you not consider owning one of these or using one of these? And the responses were split exactly down the middle. Half said that they would, half said that they would not.
Jeff Borowiec (16:10):
And I think it probably changes as the concept evolves. You know, it’s one thing, if this is an FAA-certified aircraft and the FAA’s managing the airspace and it’s safe and the pilot’s on board, then there may be people that are all for it. And when you take the pilot out of it, then that could really change the <laugh> the calculus a little bit too. So yeah.
Bernie Fette (16:31):
Right. Here’s your chance to get in trouble. <laugh> Give us a prediction. What do you think will be the next couple of big milestones that would be noticeable? Not just to the folks in the research and technology and R and D business, but milestones in the coming years, that would be noticeable to the general public.
Jeff Borowiec (16:52):
I, I think we’re gonna see some of these aircraft actually certified by the FAA. And I don’t know why we wouldn’t, because they’re going through the same process. Uh, they have the same equipment and I think that we’re gonna see the FAA issue the vertiport guidance. And we’re gonna see some cities who have been on the leading edge of this, try to, uh, move forward in developing vertiports. I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re gonna see this materialize to some extent. And so I, I would say if we come back in 18 to 24 months, I would say that we would see some movement. Now are the skies gonna be darkened by EV-TOLs? Probably not. But I do think we’re gonna see some steady progress towards this concept and system with respect to implementation.
Bernie Fette (17:35):
How many years before taking one of these vehicles instead of an Uber or a Lyft would be practical for you and your few guests?
Jeff Borowiec (17:47):
<laugh> Wow. Really putting me on the spot here. <laugh>.
Bernie Fette (17:49):
Yeah, I am.
Jeff Borowiec (17:49):
You know, I still think we’re quite a few years away from this, replacing it. And I’ll tell you, I think that where I’m not sold yet, on the cost, personally. I just, you know, the cost may still be a little bit prohibitive.
Bernie Fette (18:02):
Jeff Borowiec (18:02):
My hope is that it’s somewhat improved to the point where it’s not just the rich and famous taking them. And I think for it to be a viable service longer term to really have those impacts on congestion and everything, that price point does have to come down. But for me, I’d like to know a little bit more about that because all of this is being privately developed. We don’t always know a lot of the costs or how they could escalate in the out years. So I think it’s gonna be quite a years before it really takes off, so to speak. And I don’t know that it’ll ever replace the automobile. I’m not sure I see that. But as far as making an impact on it, I hope that 10 years from now we can look back and say, yeah, we got the price point down and we got enough people moving this way to help.
Bernie Fette (18:46):
Right. Perhaps instead of asking you that question in comparing it to an Uber or Lyft ride, maybe what I should have done was ask you in terms of comparing it to a limousine.
Jeff Borowiec (18:56):
<laugh> Well, I think that those services will always be there. Yeah, I really do hope that it can evolve beyond that high-end market and that it can become accessible. And I know that’s the objective of many in this industry, to make that happen. ‘Cause I think they know that they’re gonna rely on that being the case in order for them to survive.
Bernie Fette (19:15):
And when we get closer to that point, I’ll hope you come back and tell us more about it.
Jeff Borowiec (19:18):
Yeah, absolutely. I’d love to.
Bernie Fette (19:21):
What keeps you motivated to show up to work every day?
Jeff Borowiec (19:27):
Well, there’s a couple things that immediately come to mind. I, the first thing that sounds cliche, but the folks that I work with are just top-notch in my program and in TTI. But I always try to focus most of my work in aviation and in aviation, there’s always something new going on. Everything is different. Every airport is different and so it never gets old. So I’d say that people and the interesting topics are probably what keep me going.
Bernie Fette (19:55):
Jeff Borowiec, senior research scientist at TTI. Coming to work every day and channeling George Jetson. <laugh> Thanks for a very fascinating conversation, Jeff.
Jeff Borowiec (20:07):
Thanks, Bernie. Appreciate it.
Bernie Fette (20:11):
As urban streets and highways become ever more congested, the search for innovative mobility solutions will continue. And before too long, what we see could include vehicles that literally rise above that gridlock. Questions regarding infrastructure needs, safety considerations, and fuel sustainability will drive much of the discussion that determines how that lofty vision might unfold.
Bernie Fette (20:38):
Thanks for listening. Please join us again next time, when we visit with Ben Ettelman, and take a close look at the complex relationship between transportation and human health. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.