What is the market for UAM?
by Albert Arnau – CTO
This may sound like a stupid or naive question coming from a person working in the field, but you will have to excuse my lack of ideas when it comes to applications of Urban Air Mobility vehicles. As an engineer working in aerospace, UAM is sexy, attractive, full of possibilities and challenges that we are more than eager to dig into, but then a question arises for which I cannot find a satisfactory answer: who would buy such a vehicle, and to do what with it?
The obvious answer is aero-taxi and it is true that an aero-taxi has been an appealing idea for a long time, since in the USA in the 50s they imagined in the 2000s we would all drive flying cars around the cities and the traffic jams would happen in the sky rather than on the roads. But then again, when we look at how humanity is evolving towards mobility, we pushed even the conventional taxi to a residual market in most cities, in favour of either public transport, bicycles, scooters and other personal mobility means. The market that seems to be the target for aero-taxis is being shrunk as time passes, and that does not sound very promising.
Striving to find a market segment, we look further than aero-taxis. Most UAMs are designed around a capacity of 4 people – give or take. That makes the car a natural competitor in terms of capacity. At the same time, the versatility that these vehicles promise is a huge advantage over public transport while the cruising speeds make them faster than any means of transportation currently in existence, covering short-to-medium distances. And, of course, the selling point of zero emissions during operation is… game-changing?
Let’s analyze each of these advantages from a technical point of view, though, and make sure we can transpose each of these characteristics into a potential market that is large enough and technologically feasible, otherwise we are still where we started.
If our competitor is the car, we are faced with a huge challenge in terms of versatility. It is quite the consensus that personal cars are mostly out of the question, UAMs are too expensive to buy and operate to use them to do the groceries, also the sheer size of them would create a logistical problem in terms of parking space. Luckily, as we mentioned, taxis are better suited as UAM missions.
We can differentiate between short trips and medium trips with the taxis. I don’t think short trips make sense as a market for UAM, as the logistical problems of having landing pads available at origin and destination would limit the flexibility of the service, transforming this market into a very niched segment. On the other hand, medium taxi distances do not really exist except for a particular type of route: from city center to the airport and vice-versa. In this case, both origin and destination are defined points which makes manageable the implemetation of landing pads. This presents a challenge though, most airports are already connected to the cities they serve through public tranport, which will always be more affordable than an air taxi. Also, the huge benefit of using a taxi is the total flexibility of chosing the destination, which for an aerotaxi is far from guaranteed in dense urban areas. These constraints turn this potential market into another small niche.
Another type of operation that falls within the range of UAM is inter-city link. In this case, and without having the flexibility of the car, such a service has as main competitor public transportation (bus or trains). In this situation we are faced with a problem, governments throughout the globe (but mostly Europe, to be fair) are increasingly striving to offer train connectivity that is capable of competing with other means of transportation within their networks while pushing to de-incentivise air travel (even considering the efforts of the industry to become carbon neutral or zero emissions). In the long term, this means that the market that can result from this approach is the left-overs of the public transport infrastructure, connecting destinations that are not favoured by public transport, but again, with a price barrier that makes them non-competitive unless we are in a real hurry.
I am sorry but in the end I am at the same place where I started. I love UAM concepts, they promise a complete revolution in how we see mobility, but I cannot see any large potential market segment in which they can trully represent a revolution at a large scale. But this is just me, I would love if someone would prove me wrong, I am dying to start working on the design of my own UAM vehicle.