Pixie Powered: Is A New Air Age Dawning?

Credit: Wisk/Cora

Is a new air age dawning?

Earlier this year my bride and I were killing time strolling through an industrial area near Los Angeles International before an evening party. In the doing, we came upon a nondescript building with the unlikely sign above the door declaring it to be the Automobile Driving Museum.

What greeted us within was an amazing array of cars going back more than a century — everything from a Packard Phaeton and three-wheeled Morgan, to a Studebaker Avanti, Edsel Ranger and DeLorean with muscle and sports cars and oddities aplenty — including a custom Plymouth town car for Franklin Roosevelt. I salivated over many and here’s the thing, the museum says all of them run, and lets you pop the doors and slide behind the wheel of most. 

 One of the verboten rides, however, had a tiller rather than a wheel and sparked my imaginings. It was a working replica of an 1886 Benz Motorwagen, regarded as the world’s first production automobile. It was developed by Karl Benz, but financed by his wife, Bertha. Later, unbeknownst to him, she famously (and illegally) drove it, along with their two teenage sons, on a 60+ mile, day-long journey making history in the effort and gaining tremendous publicity for the vehicle. An excellent recreation of this, the very first road trip, can be seen here: https://tinyurl.com/y5omgdmb

It’s easy to envision the thrills attendant to that period of discovery and invention in what became a global transportation industry. And I wonder if another chapter in motorized movement is aborning right now.

The research effort, formidable sums of investment dollars, design and fabrication work, chemistry, programming, experimentation and on-going international partnerships and flight trials, along with the breathtaking predictions and ambitious timelines involving drones, electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) aircraft, autonomous flight and urban air mobility (UAM) machines is unlike anything I’ve ever known. The excitement of those involved is palpable and the energy of the movement is seemingly unstoppable and inexhaustible.

Some of the things these backers — Boeing, Airbus, Embraer, Toyota and Hyundai, among them — envision include fleets of pilot-less vertical-takeoff-and-landing air taxis operating from and within city centers; front step delivery by drones of food, clothing, drugs and toilet paper ordered on line hours earlier; island hopping in hush-quiet, battery-powered flivvers; tracking suspects (or innocents) and communicating with same; remotely inspecting bridges, towers, tracks and turbines; shuttling documents and personnel to ships offshore; recording car wrecks, rushing vaccines, pinpointing victims of natural disasters — the mission possibilities go on and on.

 It’s easy to get caught up in the tidal wave of it all. But for most of its history, civil aviation has advanced incrementally, with demonstrated safety of flight its pacing item. And in the view of Brian German, that will continue with this emerging aerial generation as well.  

An aerospace engineering professor at Georgia Tech, director of its Center for Urban and Regional Air Mobility, and a member of the AIAA Aircraft Electric Propulsion and Power Working Group, German is intimately familiar with the efforts and challenges involved in the dawning new air age. And while he says advances are assured — “This is coming. It’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ and ‘to what extent’” — he maintains the ultimate test will be earning certification and producing vehicles and a support structure economically.

It is that last point that draws Richard Aboulafia’s focus and signature skepticism. Vice President of Analysis at Teal Group in Washington, he says creating the aircraft, technologies, services and infrastructure needed for urban aviation will require billions of dollars in investment. And save for “an awful lot of technological magic, or pixie dust” the collective effort might never turn a profit. His dark prediction: “Most UAM companies will suffer grievous fates, destroying millions in investor cash.”

We’ll see. The fact is drones are operating commercially. Soon Wisk, a Boeing-backed outfit, will be carrying Kiwi commuters autonomously in its two-place, pilot-less Cora air taxi. Meanwhile, Joby, a developer in which Toyota recently led a $594 million investment round, has applied for FAA certification of its S4 eVTOLer. All of that and much more supports Dr. German’s observation.

It’s worth noting that along with Bertha’s Motorwagen and 100+ other classics in the Automobile Driving Museum’s collection, all but two were powered by internal combustion engines — a 1922 Detroit Electric and a 1975 Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar. While neither was particularly successful, their concept had merit, as a pixie-dusted Tesla more recently confirmed. 

William Garvey

Bill was Editor-in-Chief of Business & Commercial Aviation from 2000 to 2020. During his stewardship, the monthly magazine received scores of awards for editorial excellence.