Over the past several years, more than $2 billion has been invested into electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft — the futuristic vehicles that promise to fly us through the cities of tomorrow. There are now more than 250 eVTOL concepts in various stages of development, a number of them well along in flight testing. So when eVTOLs show up in season three of Westworld — HBO’s big-budget reimagining of an android-inhabited future — it seems reasonable to assume that their design was influenced by this real-life activity.
In fact, not so much.
“Honestly, I was somewhat ignorant about it,” Westworld production designer Howard Cummings told eVTOL.com, explaining that he drew his inspiration instead from commercial drones. Yet he managed to arrive at many of the same conclusions as the nascent eVTOL industry — a business that is as much about selling a vision of the future as it is about technological innovation.
The biggest difference is that Cummings had the advantage of 40 years of presumed scientific and industrial advancement, allowing him to disregard thorny problems such as battery weight that bedevil eVTOL developers today. In the new season of Westworld, it is 2058. The gunslinging host Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) has escaped from the show’s titular theme park and into the wider world. She ends up in Los Angeles, home to the Incite corporation and its massive artificial intelligence system, called Rehoboam.
This is not the dystopian Los Angeles of Blade Runner — at least on the surface.
“Our future looks amazing, but there are problems you discover underneath it all,” Cummings explained. The L.A. of Westworld is sleek and orderly; far from a worst-case scenario. As Cummings pointed out, “Things like climate change don’t seem to be an issue. There also doesn’t seem to be evidence of any kind of war or dissent.” (Or, for that matter, a global pandemic.)
In this superficially ideal future, he continued, “people are now living in buildings with lots of vertical greenery and roof spaces and plazas, and sort of separated from the whole annoyance of traffic and things like that.” This vision of L.A. borrows heavily from modern-day Singapore, where some of the scenes were shot — and which, coincidentally, has enthusiastically embraced experimentation with urban air mobility.
While traffic in Westworld’s L.A. has largely been relegated to underground systems, there are some allowances for surface traffic, including autonomous rideshare vehicles and motorcycles. “And then there was the idea that there could be a flying vehicle,” Cummings said, emphasizing that what appears on the screen is “not a car. Reading some of the reviews they keep referring to it as a ‘flying car,’ which it isn’t — I kind of cringe and grit my teeth.” (Many in the eVTOL industry who similarly despise the term “flying car” can surely relate.)
After studying a variety of drones, the production team settled on an autonomous quadcopter concept, with the four propellers embedded in a wing structure that also acts as support. The son of a U.S. Navy pilot and no stranger to aviation, Cummings put some effort into fleshing out the concept; explaining, for example, that “the wing and the structure also forms some battery storage, and [there’s] also some solar power mixed into those big flying arcs.”
Admittedly, he took some liberties in assuming what might be technologically achievable four decades from now. “I felt in the future [there will be a] lightness and flexibility that’s going to be achievable in a bigger aircraft . . . which is a big stretch, but maybe you could figure it out?”
Meanwhile, the passenger-carrying cab was designed to potentially be swapped for a cargo pod. “Now you don’t see that in episode one, and honestly I don’t think you actually see that in the rest of the episodes, but that will show up maybe one day later,” Cummings said. What viewers will see in later episodes is that the aircraft is voice-controlled, and that some of its glass also functions as screens.
The cab is the only part of the vehicle that was built in real life, since adding the wing structures would have been cost-prohibitive and impractical for carting around the actual L.A. “The cab was built to go on the back of a trailer so we could move it around and take it to different locations,” Cummings said. “And we put the cab on a crane, and moved it around, and then put it on a different rig to give it movement and stuff like that.”
The VIP styling of the cabin reflects the role served by the aircraft in the series, which according to Cummings is “as something more corporate, the province of the rich, and not part of the everyday.” In Westworld, the few eVTOLs we see function much as helicopters do today: as vehicles of convenience for the wealthy and powerful, able to land on minimally prepared pads and balconies as needed to advance the plot.
That’s very different from the future imagined by eVTOL proponents like Uber, who envision fleets of air taxis moving people on a large scale, primarily on established routes between well developed vertiports. While this vision didn’t factor into Westworld’s creative design, Cummings learned about it at a later stage, when he sourced some bicycles from Uber for the show. Along with the bikes, Uber shared some of the skyport concepts that its architectural partners have developed for L.A. — which is one of three launch cities for its planned eVTOL air taxi service, Uber Air.
“I had already gone down the road of what that vehicle was, but it was interesting to see that people are very close to this idea, which is exciting,” Cummings said. “Because I do feel like the flying car is not necessarily a good idea, but a flying public system is, because it would be regulated and it would also have designated flight paths, and it could be centralized [and] used by everyone.”