Boeing-backed air taxi upstart Wisk plans to fly you across town at UberX prices by 2030

Absence of an on-board pilot will lower costs and raise blood pressure, starting soon in Texas

Boeing-backed autonomous aircraft startup Wisk expects to be operational by the end of the decade, at which time it will provide customers with air taxi at a price point comparable to an UberX ride, according to APAC VP Catherine MacGowan.

"There's a very comprehensive process for us to go through to be approved, to be certified, and approved to conduct autonomous operations, so we won't be carrying passengers and we won't be undertaking operations until the [US Federal Aviation Authority] FAA and other regulators as appropriate have been fully set aside," MacGowan admitted at the Singapore airshow on Wednesday.

Wisk's Generation 6 eVTOL is an electric four-passenger plus luggage vehicle, which is expected to be flying by the end of the year. It will operate between 2,500 and 4000 feet, with a range of 90 miles, a speed between 110 and 120 knots, and a charge time of 15 minutes.

Approval from regulators like the FAA would mark the first time a pilotless commercial aircraft could carry passengers. The aircraft would be supervised by a Wisk staff member on the ground, monitoring and taking on the role of communicating with air traffic control for several vehicles at a time.

But while regulatory approval to fly is one thing, take-off and landing presents a whole different problem.

"In terms of the landing locations, this is really fascinating. What we are doing is we are taking aviation that for so many decades is operating from fixed nodes, and we're bringing it into a city, and we're bringing it into the community," enthused the VP.

"And so we spend as much time talking to city planners, rail planners, ferry planners, as we do with people in the aviation environment, because we're looking at this multimodal connection and how does that kind of aircraft integrate not only into existing aircraft and the aviation environment, but how do they link into mass transit and ground transport hubs," she posited.

Wisk air Taxi

A Wisk air Taxi prototype - Click to enlarge

Wisk expects it will need to tailor its operations to the peculiarities of different cities. It is looking to place some “vertiports” in the center of cities – to meet customer demand in those locations – and others that are for maintenance and other operations.

On Wednesday, Wisk announced a partnership with the city of Sugar Land, Texas that will see it to assess vertiport locations at the regional airport and lay the foundation for establishing a network across nearby Greater Houston.

The public transportation-starved area relies heavily on road infrastructure. Houston is the kind of place where having access to a household car is practically mandatory. Expansive multi-lane highway systems interlace like a complex web across the metro, connecting suburbs and the city center. Commuting can take hours, depending on traffic conditions.

Houston's transport challenges are expected to worsen with a recent population boom that has ranked it the second fastest growing metro in America.

The additional cars on the road, combined with a push to house residents further from the city center, could serve as the perfect incentive for a population to overcome any hesitations or safety concerns related to pilot-free aircraft.

MacGowan said the company has experienced "no significant incidents" out of the 1,750 test flights logged by the upstart across five iterations of its aircraft

However, reluctance is understandable given the recent spate of accidents from autonomous cars, which don't even leave the ground and travel far slower than aircraft.

MacGowan revealed that with regard to social acceptance, Wisk had seen "a little bit of an age difference" with younger people being more keen.

Regardless, MacGowan also conceded that Wisk had found in talks with regulators that they all have autonomy in their sights, in the United States and abroad, including her territory in Asia Pacific.

"This is the direction the industry is moving in," she declared. "Autonomy allows for safety, it allows for predictability, and allows the scale as we start to see the kinds of numbers of aircraft that are projected for Asia and around the world." ®

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