There’s no doubt that momentum is building rapidly for eVTOL aircraft. Just five years ago the notion was laughable, but now the pieces are falling steadily into place. The control technology is mostly mature — though as-yet largely untested in passenger-carrying vehicles — as is the propulsion hardware. Today’s battery tech makes it feasible; tomorrow’s will make it a slam-dunk. Autonomous operation is on the horizon, though it will likely be the last challenge to be resolved. Startups from both the technology and aviation industries are hard at work developing prototypes, while regulators and potential operators are actively mulling the path to viability.
Then there’s the public — the people who will actually use, and pay for, the services. How have they reacted to the prospect of hopping effortlessly across town in these compact rides for what we’re promised will be the price of an Uber? Excited? Terrified? Uncertain? Aware?
The answer to that question — how the public perceives urban air mobility (UAM) — will be critical to the eVTOL industry over the next decade. Public opinion will guide administrators considering the services’ operation in their communities, and the public will ultimately decide whether or not the aircraft and the supporting systems are safe enough to pack themselves and their families into for trips short and long. But while several early studies addressing public perceptions are promising, little is known about whether the public will actually fully buy into this idea and support it once they start flying.
There’s good reason for this; after all, there’s essentially nothing for the public to react to yet, save a few news reports they may have seen, the occasional conceptual rendering of vertiports and sleek whirlybirds, and vague survey questions. There’s no safety data, no confirmed costs, no sense of how noisy these things will be in the air, and no real information about how this whole scheme will actually operate in terms of logistics and infrastructure. There aren’t even any videos showing the aircraft doing anything more than hovering tentatively or cruising up and down runways. Until people can see eVTOL aircraft in action — flying between buildings; managing wind, rain and snow; and generally acting like they know what they’re doing — it will be anybody’s guess how the public will respond.
The early studies that have been done do lay a groundwork for what perceptions the industry will need to track, even though they generate fairly predictable — and in some cases curious — results as yet. In February, Airbus dropped its Preliminary Community Perception Study, which found that “44.5 percent of all respondents’ initial reactions to UAM is in support or strong support while 41.4 percent of all respondents believe UAM is either safe or very safe.” Of course, that also implies that 55.5 percent of the respondents are less than supportive, and 58.6 percent are less than confident in the new aircraft’s safety — though Airbus doesn’t make clear in its analysis exactly what the respondents were responding to when assessing the safety of a system that doesn’t exist yet. Nor, of course, does the study factor in the more recent impact of the Boeing 737 MAX grounding on the public’s perceptions of automation in aviation, regardless of whether it’s a commercial airliner or an air taxi with a “minimally trained” pilot at the controls monitoring an essentially self-flying aircraft. Nor does it factor in the impact of the accidents and fatalities that will inevitably come during the development and early demonstrations of these aircraft.
The take-home in all this is that even though there’s an undeniable aura of inevitability to UAM, it’s still not a foregone conclusion that the public will get on board, so to speak. Accidents could stack up, scaring off the public. Costs per flight could spin well beyond any early promises of affordability. The flights themselves could prove noisy and unpleasant aboard tiny, featherweight aircraft — not to mention loud and unpleasant to those in the neighborhoods around which they fly. Notions of egalitarianism — and therefore public support — could vanish in the vortexes of wealthy commuters zipping above increasingly resentful earthbound bridge-and-tunnel people.
It will be hard to sidestep these hurdles, even through the smartest marketing campaigns. Our history — as well as our present — contains countless cases of the public torpedoing even the most well-meaning initiatives. These range from massive programs like Concorde, which failed for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which were negative perceptions relating to noise, environmental impact, and social inequality, all the way down to something as seemingly benign as Google Glass. People took one look at those awkward, suspicious-looking goggles and said, “No way.” In our more current age of Facebook’s PR disasters and Amazon’s often Machiavellian scheming — with everything from customer data to its “courting” of cities for its new headquarters — it’s going to become harder and harder to navigate missteps and assuage skeptical or even hostile populations.
The reality for UAM going forward is that public perceptions need to be at the forefront the industry’s collective mind, and they need to be managed. By that I do not mean “spun” — nothing of the sort. In fact, I mean quite the opposite. There needs to be absolute transparency in all things relating to safety and operational factors. There needs to be honesty in timeline projections and technological capability — and realistic projections that factor in delays and escalating costs. There needs to be radical clarity with regard to things like automation and integration into public airspace. Finally, UAM companies need to work in good faith with the media despite the fact that that institution, as well, is under its own scrutiny. In its purest form, it’s not there to boost the industry; it’s there to explore, unpack, and explain on behalf of the reader — i.e., the public.
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of this challenge. To put it bluntly, there can be no mistakes. Just a few missteps by incautious CEOs who shoot their mouths off in public forums, or by “visionary” prognosticators who lay out plans with no regard for the true economics of aviation or even the core truths about human nature — that we may not all fall in line precisely as planners hope — could potentially sink this nascent industry before it has a chance to take hold. Furthermore, poorly handled crises will do nobody any favors. If players in this industry don’t have highly evolved and well-thought-out contingency plans for worst-case-scenario events such as crashes, VIP injury or death, bystander incidents, discovery of malfeasance or criminal wrongdoing, or the technology or the service coming up short in any capacity, those entities deserve what’s coming to them. The plans need to put the public’s interest first, not those of the company or its shareholders. These lessons have been learned time and again, so learn from them again. After all, eVTOL pioneers are here to reinvent aviation, not the wheel.
UAM has legitimate potential to revolutionize transportation and improve quality of life for populations around the globe. But the rollout has to be careful, appropriately paced, and, above all, professional in both its mechanics and its perceptions. In short, it has to be damn-near perfect.