Flying taxis? Uber has a competitor in Chinese drone maker Ehang

In Guangzhou earlier this month 40 people, including the deputy mayor of the southern Chinese province, lined up for a taste of the future of transport – an autonomous flying taxi. The Ehang 184 drone flew the passengers on round trips of up to 15 kilometres, with some reaching the top speed of 130km per hour.

The successful passenger flights by the Guangzhou-based company come as tech firms around the world race to launch new methods of mobility and carve out a slice of the fast-growing market.

“This makes you feel like you have travelled into the future, like you’re in a sci-fi movie. But this is real,” Ehang’s founder and chief executive Hu Huazhi said in a company video that showed footage of the flight tests.

“It’s so easy and stable, the operation is very simple. I’ve flown so many helicopters, but nothing feels like this.”

The successful manned flights of the Ehang 184 come as technology companies and governments seek new ways to optimise urban transport and mobility. Ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Didi, as well as Alphabet subsidiary Waymo, are testing autonomous driving technology which companies believe will improve safety on roads. Sharing autonomous cars could also eliminate the need for car ownership.

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“Companies like Ehang and any form of mobility-on-demand, whether with wheels or without, is something that you’re liable to see experimented with as a way of getting away from the congestion problem in China’s densely populated urban areas,” said Bill Russo, founder and chief executive at Shanghai-based strategy and investment advisory firm Automobility. “This is a three-dimensional world, we shouldn’t just be limited to travelling on the flat plane of the earth. Why not go vertical?”

To fly the Ehang drone, passengers input their flight path into the control system, tap a button and the drone will take them there. At present, the electric-powered flying taxi has a limited range, but Ehang said it is stable enough to fly in thunderstorms and even typhoon conditions. In the event that something goes awry, a human pilot in a control centre can take over piloting of the drone remotely.

As well as Guangzhou deputy mayor Wang Dong, other government officials taking a ride included Zhang Jianhua, deputy secretary of Guangzhou municipal government and Liu Yumei, director of the Guangzhou Tourism Board.

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Uber is also looking into building cars that can fly, with plans to launch an aerial taxi service by 2020. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told an investor forum in Tokyo on Tuesday that he can see commercialization of the Uber Air flying taxi service in five to 10 years.  

Last week, Tesla’s chief executive Elon Musk received the green light to begin boring tunnels in Washington DC for his proposed DC – New York hyperloop – an ultra high-speed underground transport system where passengers travel in autonomous electric pods at over 600 miles per hour. The hyperloop would theoretically reduce the three-hour journey between the two cities to just 29 minutes.

Drones like the Ehang 184 transporting people via air could also help reduce congestion on the roads, along with the trend towards more car sharing. The company has hinted at plans to provide a flying taxi service, although no further details have been revealed.

Ehang first unveiled its concept drone at the Las Vegas electronics trade show CES in 2016, although at the time many dismissed the idea of a human-carrying drone as merely a pipe dream.

“We’ve been developing and testing aerial vehicle technology for some time now, and we’re finally at the test flight stage for the [drone],” Hu said this month.

The company does not yet have a concrete timeline for when its drones will be ready for public use, and is currently working on adding optional manual controls to allow passengers with piloting experience the choice to fly the vehicle manually.

“I believe it will be a safe means of transport that people can actually use in the future,” said Hu. 

Ehang is pitting itself against firms like Germany’s Volocopter which has developed a flying taxi eponymously-named the Volocopter 2X, complete with 18 rotors. During this year’s CES, the Volocopter 2X flew briefly across a stage at an Intel keynote presentation.

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But not everyone is convinced the time has come for autonomous air transport, be it flying cars or drones. 

“It is not going to be affordable for the mass market and the regulations are not there yet. Think about the energy required and the noise pollution generated – just a regular drone is already really noisy,” said Chua Chwee Kan, global research director for big data and artificial intelligence at IDC.

“The problem of solving autonomous cars on the road has to be solved first before we can even think about autonomous drones flying human beings around.”

Tesla’s Musk even believes such vehicles are dangerous, since parts may fall on people below and injure or kill them.

“Obviously, I like flying things,” Musk said in an interview with Bloomberg last year. “But it’s difficult to imagine the flying car becoming a scalable solution.

“Your anxiety level will not decrease as a result of things that weigh a lot buzzing around your head.”

Still, the fact that China is amenable to new ideas is proof that it is serious about solving some of its most entrenched problems, according to Russo.

“We need a place in the world where you can dream big and hope to achieve something within a reasonable period of time, and more recently that place has been in China,” he said. “The lack of legacy in China lends itself to creating the future, as opposed to defending the past.”

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