When the character Doc in the 1985 classic Back to the Future spoke of the future, flying cars were a staple of his vision. We are currently two years into the future that he spoke of, which was a mere 30 years away at the time the film was released. And while flying cars are not quite whizzing over a world operated by robots left and right, with the announcement that Airbus will release its ‘flying taxi’ Vahana to the public within five years, the option of having an air taxi for everyday commutes does not seem too far-fetched.

The Bay Area based A Cubed (A3) division of Airbus has released the first official glance at its ‘flying air taxi’ called Vahana. After announcing last year the release of the “autonomous air taxi,” Airbus has followed through on its promise, currently holding flight tests of the electric air taxi. The increase in the number of prototypes and flight tests in recent years is bringing the possibility of promising changes to urban transport.

Soaring in Oregon’s skies is the electric airplane that is currently undergoing flight simulations to shuttle cargo and passengers to and from distances between 10 and 100 kilometers. While Vahana is not the only air taxi that boasts revolutionizing air travel, it is unique in so that it is one of the first that uses vertical takeoff and landing (also known as VTOL). Its VTOL capabilities are enabled by the electric motors on its wings that tilt forward during takeoff and landing, which drive the eight propellers on its wings. Vahana’s build and electrical functionality allows it to navigate tight urban spaces and makes it easier to maintain in comparison to other builds. This will also enable the air taxi to fly twice the distance an average helicopter does while running on the same amount of energy.

Autonomous vehicles are not a novelty to roads with self-driving cars, like Google’s project Waymo, and intelligent computer functions like cruise control and self-parking already driving around in cities. Unlike automobiles, self-driving airborne vehicles have not completely lifted off the ground. The Vahana is among the industry’s potential game-changers, given that the air taxi will not need a human to physically operate the vessel, but, rather, can be operated from the ground using an on-board computer. In February of this year, Dubai announced that it would begin to test self-driving ‘flying cars’ in its skies over the summer.

The idea of autonomous vehicles as defining urban travel is up and coming, bringing big names in the auto-tech industry like Tesla to the table, which is interested in bringing to the streets a self-driving car. There are a multitude of nuances to autonomous driving that can make inter-city travel more practical, efficient, and safe. Similarly, the idea behind autonomous Vahana and other air taxis is to minimize the amount of time it takes to travel from one side of a city to the next. The people over at A3 are hoping that, with the development of their prototype, people in Beijing can hop from one point in the city to the next without getting stuck in traffic.

flying taxi

Early prototype of a ‘flying car’ (CC: SDASM Archives)

While autonomous vehicles occupy a significant seat in a larger conversation around the future of urban transport, proposing very innovative solutions to a lot of problems regarding urban transport, there are a number of hurdles that need to be overcome. The largest of these challenges is the integration of air transport into city’s airspace; in other words, regulating air traffic. This raises obvious questions about safety and preventative measures that need to be taken to ensure the safety of both passengers within the vehicles and those down below. The technology to enable airborne urban transport is in the works, with well-known names like NASA and Uber, working on bringing autonomous vehicles to the commercial market as soon as 2020. But the question is not whether this kind of revolutionizing technology exists, but rather, how it can also be used to safeguard it against hacking attempts.