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The flying taxi future is coming, but it’s elitist and underwhelming

German startup Volocopter unveiled a new flying taxi station in Singapore, but it was gone within a week

Photography by Dharma Sadasivan for The Verge

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On the bright Monday morning of October 21st in downtown Singapore, German air taxi startup Volocopter unveiled the VoloPort, the world’s first flying taxi station. Perched atop a floating platform at Marina Bay, the temporary structure offered a generous view of the country’s central business district’s most iconic landmarks. The press event went off without a hitch, though from the lingering construction crew, it was clear that this had been an 11th-hour effort.

The next day, just before the scheduled public test flight for the Volocopter 2X, a brisk downpour threatened to cancel the entire demonstration. A modest crowd of press and guests waited in a nearby building for the rain to let up; across the bay, groups of people were waiting to catch a glimpse of the future. 

By the end of the week, the VoloPort was dismantled and packed up, ready to be redeployed at future launches

On Tuesday, the VoloPort’s landing pad was empty. Some had assumed that the 2X would take off — or at least land — at the floating platform, but the tiny white aircraft was 700 meters away across the water. During its two minutes in the air, the crowd was told to take note of its low noise profile. But at that distance, it would have been quiet anyway. Once the test flight was over, everyone was called to take a group photo and grab a drink; a plastic bucket sat at the entrance of the VoloPort, collecting rainwater from the roof. 

A few moments later, the rain resumed. By the end of the week, the VoloPort was dismantled and packed up, ready to be redeployed at future launches. The momentous future of electric air transport is, in fact, a fleeting spectacle.

Volocopter, with its flagship electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, the Volocopter 2X, is determined to make flying cars an everyday solution instead of an expensive indulgence. 

Big names like NASA, Airbus, Boeing, and Uber have also thrown their hats in the ring,  racing against ambitious startups to build electric aircraft as viable methods of urban transport. Volocopter currently leads the extremely competitive pack. But even with a successful prototype, one of its biggest barriers is still public acceptance. It’s hard to feel confident in the idea of autonomous air taxis when we haven’t even nailed autonomous cars. 

At Marina Bay, the VoloPort took four days to put together as part of the 2019 Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress. Building materials for the VoloPort had been sent over from China for a week-long pop-up to introduce the world to the concept of “urban air mobility.” Amid a sea of freshly laid astroturf, the one-story terminal seemed purposefully ordinary, almost like a small car dealership. This was the handiwork of UK-based company Skyports, which is also known for its drone delivery operations. It owns, develops, and operates the VoloPort.

the interior resembled a sterile sci-fi movie set, albeit with harried work crews still tidying up after their 11th-hour construction spree

The branding is all Volocopter: the basic VoloPort is a simple check-in and lounge area arranged around a large circular “parking spot” for its electric aircraft. The design is modular, so it can be configured to accommodate multiple landing pads and air taxis. With sleek white kiosks, biometric passporting, and minimal seating, the interior resembled a sterile sci-fi movie set, albeit with harried work crews still tidying up after their 11th-hour construction spree. 

Enshrined within this monochrome cocoon was Volocopter’s eponymous aircraft: the Volocopter 2X, a small, egg-like multicopter fitted with a wide halo of 18 rotors. It is essentially an air taxi, built to ferry only one passenger at a time over the congestion, overcrowding, and road closures below.

But instead of facilitating high-volume air travel between cities like an airport, Volocopter wants to focus on local point-to-point travel. When the company begins commercial flights in 2022, passengers will be flown from one VoloPort to another.

By 2035, the company aims to have dozens of VoloPorts across Singapore, each with the capacity to handle 10,000 passengers a day. The end goal is to not need any special infrastructure at all so that a 2X can land in a parking lot and take you to the movies. Even before the commercial launch of the VoloPort, Volocopter is already planning for a future where VoloPorts are obsolete.

Flying cars are part of space age futurism. And after years of movies depicting jetpacks and hovercraft, it’s been a matter of when, not if, we would finally get a taste of this technology beyond experimental prototypes — at least, in the public imagination. While helicopters have ferried the rich and famous around for decades, advances in automation, battery power, and drone technology have made flying cars seem closer than ever.

Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter says he takes inspiration from The Fifth Element, Luc Besson’s 1997 sci-fi / fantasy film that featured chaotic scenes of flying cars veering and nose-diving. Though perhaps he isn’t thinking of the scene in which Bruce Willis’ character completely wrecks his flying taxi. 

But does Reuter really see the future depicted in The Fifth Element as a net positive? That world is polluted, heavily surveilled, and the economic inequality is pronounced. “That’s a good point,” he said. “I might have to rethink that analogy. I’m just trying to get people to comprehend the transformative elements this might have in the long run. Ultimately, it’s up to us as a society, how we want to actually use this technology.”

Reuter has never flown in a Volocopter. The only people currently flying Volocopters are certified test pilots. “We’re not doing fun rides, simply because the technology hasn’t matured yet, and we don’t want to risk anything so extreme,” he said. And though Volocopter has done unpiloted test flights for some time now, the company believes it needs to cultivate public acceptance and trust, starting with piloted flights.

Singapore isn’t an obvious candidate to showcase experimental air technology. Low-flying aircraft aren’t in regular use by residents. Unlike major US cities, there are no day-to-day news or police helicopters hovering overhead, and the most pronounced increase in low-flying air traffic is the months-long fighter jet rehearsal period leading up to the annual National Day parade in August. Most Singaporeans aren’t accustomed to frequent low-flying aircraft activity, and even those who live near Air Force facilities still get annoyed by occasional fighter jets or choppers roaring overhead.

Singapore’s traffic isn’t heavy enough to warrant air taxis, really. It ranks 88th on TomTom’s Traffic Index. (Regional neighbors Jakarta and Bangkok are seventh and eighth, respectively.) But Singaporeans have a reputation for being technophiles. And perhaps more importantly, Singapore has a welcoming regulatory climate. 

“Singapore, to me, has a tradition and culture of being very innovative in the implementation and adoption of new technologies,” said Reuter. “I’m not contesting that there are cities that have more severe challenges when it comes to mobility issues. Those cities, of course, we see as huge potential.” 

“If you look at today’s air mobility service, well, it’s a helicopter. And the helicopter business is very elitist.”

And while Skyports has partnered with Volocopter for landing sites, that relationship isn’t exclusive, says Simon Whalley, Skyports’ regulatory and policy manager. Other manufacturers around the world work with Skyports, he said, though he declined to name any. For Skyports, the VoloPort is a way of establishing the company’s dominance in a growing field, as it will take some time for air taxis to reach a “certain technological maturity,” and even more importantly, get proper certification, Whalley says.  

Volocopter believes its work with SkyPorts gives it an edge over other air taxi companies in terms of planning and scaling. “For me, I started four years ago having the first ideas about infrastructure,” said Volocopter co-founder and chief technology officer Alex Zosel. “I’m working on concepts where every ten seconds, the aircraft can take off and land – so you call it a hub. I believe strongly that you can bring one hundred thousand people per hour with air taxis through the city.” 

At the 2X’s current capacity, this would require 100,000 aircraft, as each 2X can only fit two people, one of whom must be a trained pilot. When asked about competitor Lilium’s five-seater prototype, Zosel argued that more seating would mean having to make multiple pickups and drop-offs like Uber Pool or the local equivalent, GrabShare. Volocopter, by contrast, caters to a single customer who can afford solo rides — much like cars do, Zosel said. Most cars only have one person in them, he noted. Plus, bigger aircraft mean more noise, more power consumption, and bulkier designs. That’s not all: bigger aircraft also mean bigger batteries, which are the most expensive part of the craft.

Volocopter is unabashed in catering to the wealthy. “If you look at today’s air mobility service, well, it’s a helicopter. And the helicopter business is very elitist,” Reuter said. “We absolutely see the chance here to make this an accepted, more accessible, and affordable mode of transport for many more people, but it makes sense on particular routes only.” 

Volocopter is keen to emphasize the “surprisingly quiet” 2X. But a week before the VoloPort opening, the company posted a video of a private test flight at Singapore’s Seletar Airport to Reddit with audio of the flying craft, which was unsurprisingly unquiet. “Obviously, it is a matter of how close to the vehicle you are, you know, subjective perception of noise,” Reuter said. “We only have one source of noise, which is the rotors, and we have 18 of them, but they all operate on a very tight band of frequencies, which makes it much more agreeable from an objective standpoint versus a typical helicopter noise. I’m not claiming it’s silent – I think it is acceptably noisy.” 

“I’m not claiming it’s silent – I think it is acceptably noisy”

But as its nearly canceled test flight showed, the carbon-fiber 2X has a bigger problem than noise: the weather. In fairness, all aircraft are vulnerable to some weather, like haze, which can affect visibility. But the 2X has other problems: it weighs just 290 kg (639 pounds) when empty, making it particularly vulnerable to strong winds and rain. The company wouldn’t say how it will overcome the island’s biannual monsoon seasons, marked by several months of heavy thunderstorms and intense lightning. At the moment, Reuter concedes that the only way to deal with bad weather is to suspend flights until it’s safe. 

Volocopter doesn’t view electric air transport as a solution to alleviate existing transportation problems. It wants to build something entirely new. And while the company’s goal to usher in a new age of air transport isn’t necessarily unrealistic, its current approach avoids wading into the class politics of urban transportation. Singapore is home to over 200,000 millionaires, and a recent Credit Suisse report showed that almost half of its adult population is among the world’s richest 10 percent. Envisioning air taxis for Singapore’s venture capitalists and tourist population is one thing, but it’s hard to imagine VoloPort getting adopted by the masses in a place with more pronounced income inequality. Flying taxis might be around the corner, but the jury’s still out on just how accessible they will be.