Uber and Hyundai have teamed up to build a fleet of autonomous airborne taxis that they hope will one day dot the skies of major cities.
Uber wants to conduct flight demonstrations of its Elevate service this year with a commercially viable planned for 2023, the ride-hailing firm said on Monday at the CES technology conference in Las Vegas.
A full-scale model of the PAV or “personal air vehicle” is set to be unveiled at the conference this week. The operational version will debut in Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne.
Download the new Indpendent Premium app
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
The vehicles will initially have a pilot before eventually becoming autonomous, Uber said, without providing a timeline for the changeover.
Hyundai is the first major car company to buy into Uber’s long-held dream to run an airborne taxi service. The South Korean carmaker aims to produce a fully electric-powered craft that will take off and land vertically, carrying four passengers at a cruising speed of up to 180mph.
The taxis will fly between 1,000 and 2,000 feet off the ground and are equipped with parachutes in case of emergencies.
“Hyundai is our first vehicle partner with experience of manufacturing passenger cars on a global scale,” said Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate.
“We believe Hyundai has the potential to build Uber Air vehicles at rates unseen in the current aerospace industry, producing high-quality, reliable aircraft at high volumes to drive down passenger costs per trip.”
Hyundai, which is better known for its more conventional mass-market saloons and hatchbacks, claims its new craft will “transform the concept of urban transportation”.
Uber is working with Nasa and a number of other manufacturers to develop the technology required for what the space agency is calling “Urban Air Mobility”.
Only the best news in your inbox
Uber’s Elevate project already runs helicopter rides for passengers in New York City and is working with Boeing on a separate concept for air taxis.
But the project with Hyundai marks a new evolution because the car giant could produce flying taxis at a rate the aerospace industry could not match, said Eric Allison, the head of Uber Elevate. Such high volume would be needed to make a large-scale network viable, he said.
Any such network is likely to face a host of potential obstacles, including close scrutiny from regulators. The logistics of taking off and landing in dense urban areas will also present problems.
Car manufacturers like Hyundai are having to make big decisions as changing consumer habits rock the auto industry. The shift away from fossil fuel powered cars has come at the same time as people in urban areas increasingly ditch the concept of owning a car, opting instead to hire or share one instead.
Curtiss Autoplane. Fulton Airphibian. Taylor Aerocar.
Businesses and entrepreneurs have been promising a mass-produced flying car for more than a century. None have succeeded, but that hasn’t stopped Hyundai and Uber from wanting in on the action.
In Las Vegas on Monday, at the Consumer Electronics Show, the two companies announced that they were joining forces to develop an all-electric air taxi that would be part of a future “aerial ride-share network.”
“We’re looking at the dawn of a completely new era that opens the skies above our cities,” Jaiwon Shin, the head of Hyundai’s Urban Air Mobility division, said at the announcement. “We will be able to fly on demand — just imagine that.”
The South Korean automaker showed a small-scale model on Monday and offered a virtual-reality experience. A nonfunctioning full-scale model was later on display.
The public has long been disappointed by promises of flying cars, but hopes have nevertheless been mounting that an aerial taxi could become a reality.
Analysts with Morgan Stanley have said they expect urban air taxis to be common by 2040, with the global market expected to be between $1.4 trillion and $2.9 trillion in size by then. At least 20 companies are working to that end, including start-ups, the aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, and automakers like Toyota and Porsche.
Daniel Wiegand, a founder of Lilium, one of the most promising and secretive start-ups in the field, told The New York Times recently that within five years a fleet of his company’s vehicles could be ferrying passengers between Manhattan and Kennedy International Airport.
But a number of challenges await. Building an air taxi that is quiet, safe and economical will mean overcoming several engineering and technical hurdles. Battery technology is limited, and the cost of operation and maintenance needs to be low enough to make rides commercially viable.
And then there is a long road to regulatory approval. According to Morgan Stanley, air taxis will probably be used first in package delivery, which has fewer technical and regulatory barriers.
In its Monday announcement, Hyundai said it would be able to bring “automotive-scale manufacturing” to Uber Elevate, the company’s aerial ride-hailing division. Hyundai would help produce and deploy the aircraft while Uber would handle support, ground connections and the customer interface.
Hyundai’s concept car, the S-A1, is designed to cruise 1,000 to 2,000 feet above the ground at 180 miles per hour. It would take trips up to 60 miles and seat four passengers and a pilot, though the aircraft would eventually be capable of autonomous flight.
During peak hours, the S-A1 would take about five to seven minutes to recharge, Hyundai said. Multiple rotors would allow for vertical takeoff and landing and be quieter than large-rotor helicopters with combustion engines — a feature critical to its use in cities, according to the company.
Uber has said it plans to host flight demonstrations this year and make its service commercially available in 2023. In addition to Hyundai, its partners include the Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, Bell, Embraer, Joby Aviation and several real estate companies. It has also signed agreements with National Aeronautics and Space Administration to develop ideas related to the infrastructure and technology of a crewless aerial network.
My time with the Hyundai Kona Electric sums up perfectly everything that is right and everything that is wrong about our attempt to decarbonise road transport, ie go electric.
First, the Kona Electric is a fine piece of engineering. It’s a pure electric, battery-powered-only machine – there are petrol and hybrid versions on sale, but this one is the real green deal, so to speak. How far it will go on a single charge depends on how you drive it, the weather (colder days and nights are tougher on batteries), and, obviously, the car’s basic design, but I was consistently on a reading of about 280 miles, and there’s no reason why a skilled electric motorist couldn’t get the full 300 miles out of the thing. So a journey from, say, Edinburgh to Birmingham would be pretty much within reach.
Range anxiety, then, should be eased at the wheel of this comfortable and quiet family hatchback. (There is a lower-range but cheaper electric Kona as well, by the way.)
Download the new Indpendent Premium app
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
Second, so far as I can see, everything worked, and there is a lot to go right in the top spec premium SE I tried – electrically adjustable heated seats, climate control, a heads-up display, the usual suite of advanced drivers aids, (part) automatic braking, automatic headlights, automatic wipers, automatic transmission, of course – there’s not much left for you to do except sit back and enjoy the ride. As ever in such vehicles, the electric motor provides plenty of low speed acceleration, so much so that if you put your foot down too hard the front wheels will scrabble a bit to cope with all the power being thrown at them. So, yes, it is good (if not great) to drive, and, as I say, it seemed reliable and well put together.
More broadly, electric cars have far fewer moving parts and other componentry to go wrong than their internal combustion engined equivalents – no exhaust or expensive catalytic converter to worry about, no radiators to leak, no alternators to pack up, no oil to change, no filters to replace. Plus the electricity to run it, off your domestic tariff preferably, is far cheaper than filling up with diesel or petrol. So the running costs, depending on the sort of driving you do, will be much cheaper and help offset the higher purchase price – and you get to help save the planet.
What’s not to like? Well, as ever, nothing to do with the car as such, but a few other things. While we may make relatively few trips above 300 miles or so, it is also true that humans can be forgetful, and can maybe neglect to plug the car in overnight to get the battery boosted. Or you might be called away suddenly. Or unable to plan ahead. The new concern, then, is that when you arrive at a public charging point it will either not work or be occupied by someone else.
The Kona, like many of the latest generation of electric cars, will take a powerful fast charge – but only if the public charging point is able to “talk” to your car, the app is working OK, your smartphone hasn’t itself run out of charge or cannot get a signal, and so on. Whereas you can roll into any petrol station and be fairly sure that you’ll find some fuel, the same cannot yet be said for every public charging point.
As I say, for most electric car users they should only need to call on such stops rarely, but the lack of reliability and the modest scale of the infrastructure does tend to nurture a new form of electric car anxiety. If you’re lumbered with a slower charging point it can take you eight hours to get up to an 80 per cent charge, as opposed to around an hour from a proper fast charger. And you can never be absolutely sure what kind of a wait you’ll be faced with. Spending the best part of a day knocking around a motorway services is, let me vouchsafe to you, purgatorial.
So, no, that’s not a very likeable way to travel, and it will slow our progress to decarbonisation unnecessarily. The stories you may have seen recently about electric cars being able to “fill up” in 10 minutes flat and go on for hundreds of miles are really just about the extremely expensive Tesla, and even then the latest charging technology is not yet proven in mass usage.
The other bit of bad news is that, er, you can’t buy one. Like some other electric models, the Hyundai Kona Electric is sold out. Customers now on the waiting list are being contacted as stock becomes available – from order they are looking at about nine months for delivery. Hyundai say they will be taking orders from the new year, and my advice is to get your name down as soon as possible.
There are many uncertainties about our economic future, but one of the more visible trends is that fossil-fuel motoring and the internal combustion engine are going the way of steam – glorious era in its way, but its time is passing. It would be passing quicker if the world’s great car companies were able to switch from their vast sunk investment in the old technologies and mass-produce electric vehicles instead. They could do with a bit of an electric shock treatment.
Sometimes a carmaker will go to all the trouble of engineering and building a car just for the sake of a few motoring journalists. The media, somehow, convince the firm’s top management to do strange things. As a global community of hacks, albeit not officially connected by any formal lobbying network, they’re often to be found demanding that workaday hatches or SUVs are transformed into convertibles or performance machines. They sometimes thoughtfully suggest making a version with six square wheels or with just the one door, just to see what would happen.
It doesn’t always work, but when it does, ungrateful sods as they tend to be, the cadre of motoring correspondents then rubbish the thing and ridicule the company for entertaining such deluded ideas. Whoever thought of marketing a six-wheeled family hatch with one door?
The most tragic example of the phenomenon came a couple of decades ago, when Jaguar finally acceded to the media’s calls for a new smaller Jaguar saloon that emulated the gorgeous Inspector Morse Mark 2 saloons of the 1960s. When Jaguar unveiled their retro S-type, it was richly ridiculed by the very people who’d spent the last few years advocating it in print and suggesting it over dinners with Jaguar execs. The S-type sold OK, but the firm’s reputation was hardly enhanced.
So I did fear for Hyundai. For years, the journalists have been begging for a proper Hyundai hot hatch (which also helps train you not to drop your aitches). Not so very long ago they were knocking out some pretty uninspiring stuff, but, as ever, the hacks were badgering them to produce a “halo” model, a Golf GTi-beater that would prove the emerging company’s credentials. It was win-win for the hacks. If Hyundai mucked it up and gave birth to a gargoyle on wheels – all very good copy for us. Or else Hyundai succeeded and we got to have a go in a press demonstrator that was actually entertaining.
Well, Hyundai didn’t bungle its first proper hot fastback, the i30 N. Indeed, the Hyundai i30 Fastback N is a match for the Golf GTi, and most of the rest of the competition too. It’s also, in this newly designed bodywork, the best looking of a crowded field.
Those looks are striking, if maybe a bit derivative. The fastback styling and the “ducktail” back end are quite reminiscent of the better-looking bits of the Mercedes-Benz range (such as the CLA four-door coupe). The car’s “face”, on the other hand, with the trapezoidal grille, is identikit Audi. If you squint you can quite easily think it is a next-generation Audi A3.
There’s a bit of fussy detailing around the place, though, with the “N” badging, and I’m not sure anyone will get the point about why Hyundai calls its sportier models “N”. So here is the full, official, explanation: “The ‘N’ in Hyundai N stands for Namyang, home to Hyundai Motor’s global R&D centre in Korea since 1995, where the idea was born, and for the Nürburgring, home to Hyundai Motor’s European Test Centre, where the i30 N was further developed and tested. The close connection between Namyang and the Nürburgring created the foundation for N, aiming to build on the company’s motorsport experience to bring thrilling winding road fun to customers who love cars. The ‘N’ logo itself embodies this idea, as it symbolises a chicane.”
As I say, I’m sceptical the nomenclature will catch on.
Anyway, the i30 Fastback N (and its shorter conventional five-door hatch sibling, which is not ever to be called “slowback”) also owes something to a third famous German brand – BMW. For the company has been busily poaching a number of designers and engineers from BMW’s famous Motorsport division, and they have made a fine job of the i30 N. Though only front-wheel drive, and thus at a fundamental disadvantage, they’ve managed to make sure that the massive 275 horsepower is delivered safely and confidently, and the car’s capabilities will usually outrun those of its driver. Unless you are being deliberately reckless, in other words, it’ll do as it’s told. If you switch the i30 to full on sport mode it will partly disable some of the chassis control software, so you can go drifting if that’s your thing. It gives you the choice of driving styles from economy to lunacy. It goes as well as anything in its league with the exception of the most powerful Cupra R variants of the Seat Leon, the Renault Megane RS and the Honda Civic Type R, which, with its massive spoiler and Batmobile styling kit, is the loudest contender in every sense of the word.
The Hyundai does, though, have some aural excitements of its own. It grumbles like Nigel Farage being asked questions about Arron Banks when it’s idling, but goes into a full-on Corbyn-style ranty barking fit when it’s pressed into a tight corner.
So I loved it, this multi-sensational experience. There are more prosaic bonuses too. The touch screen works intuitively. The seats are exceptionally comfortable, with an adjustable squab to add support under your knees. The longer fastback styling gives you a bigger boot, a little of which is taken up with what looks like a scaffolding pole – a stout racing cross-member that stops the bodyshell from flexing too much, giving it more stable handling.
Best of all, though, is the value for money. For between £1,000 and £10,000 less than its main rivals, it matches them for performance and practicality, and is the most handsome of the lot. So this time I’m glad that Hyundai listened to people like me. They got it right.