To help prepare Los Angeles for the new technology, a nonprofit organization spun out of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office is working with air taxi developers and local residents to develop a policy tool ahead of commercial operations later in the year. this decade.
There is a lot to hammer out before then. First and foremost, the aircraft must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration – a gigantic task in itself. But even in addition to aircraft certification, companies must also plan infrastructure, namely ports, or where the air taxis will take off and land. And these come with real issues like noise pollution and zoning laws that have the potential to affect not only the city’s residents but also other transportation networks.
Urban Movement Labs was spun out of the mayor’s office for economic development in 2020 to become an independent 501c (3) nonprofit aiming to shape the future of mobility in the city. This year, the organization initiated a partnership in the urban environment (UAM) with the mayor’s office and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation to take a closer look at how the city can integrate UAM into existing infrastructure and transportation networks in a way that maximizes equality and accessibility.
The partnership is partly funded by Archer Aviation and Hyundai’s Urban Air Mobility division.
“We have a commitment from Hyundai and Archer to actually focus on helping us develop this toolbox,” UML CEO Sam Morrissey explained to TechCrunch in a recent interview. “It’s everything from the policies around where these vehicles fly, the flight routes where these vehicles can land outside commercial airports … and other related policies around planning for [vertiports]. ”
Joby Aviation has been coordinating with UML since the organization was formed, and German UAM developer Volocopter took over as UML’s newest partner earlier this month.
“Our role is really to facilitate the new implementation of technology in Los Angeles,” Morrissey said. He added that the city wants to avoid ex post facto confusion to regulate transportation technologies, such as what happened after the launch of Uber, Lift and scooter rental services.
“Especially in 2016, when Uber Elevate started talking about flying taxis in cities, the city of Los Angeles said, ‘We need a separate unit that can help focus this.'”
The infrastructure challenge
UML shapes itself as a three-way bridge between the city, the private industry and, most importantly, Los Angelenos. The three perspectives do not always agree. In particular, the launch of electric air taxis offers unique challenges that need to be addressed, ranging from fire risk and zone issues to noise pollution and issues that cause disagreement among stakeholders.
Consider vertiports. While certification of the aircraft is exclusively in the jurisdiction of the FAA, “if you want to build new infrastructure on the ground, this is obviously a municipal and an urban issue,” Greg Bowles, Joby’s head of government, explained TechCrunch. “The way you want to use it, the access to it, the permit, it’s all municipal [issues]. ”
Morrissey said companies are primarily approaching route planning from a market point of view — for example, looking at where people currently use Uber Black, the ride-sharing company’s premium service — while Urban Movement Labs wants to superimpose it on a regional planning that is emerging. for how UAM would support existing transport networks in the long term.
Location and zoning legislation is another matter. In addition to the easy-to-imagine NIMBYism that can emerge when potential vertiport locations are located, operating speeds or flights per hour can affect how many air taxi operators can use a given location.
While both Archer and Joby have announced private partnerships with REEF Technology to convert assets as parking garages into vertiport locations (and UML recognizes that these locations make good sense for several reasons), the city’s own rules still need to be considered before air taxis can start ferrying customers.
“Converting the roof onto a parking structure sounds good, but you ultimately still need Building and Safety to come in and say that this deck can support these aircraft, that the firefighting needs are adequate enough,” Morrissey said.
A big question mark is whether and how many vertiports will be exclusive-use versus shared between the companies. One can imagine air taxi takeoffs and landing sites as airport ports (homogeneous and shared between all airlines) or more as gas stations (branded, competitive and offering different facilities). This could also be another potential point of contention between the city, its residents and the air taxi companies.
At least in the beginning, however, many companies may decide to cooperate – e.g. Setting standards regarding noise and charges – is the faster way to overall commercialization and adoption than working separately.
“We’re not really looking at this as a competitive space,” Bowles said of Joby’s work on vertiport standards. “This is something we need to build so we work with many other OEMs and future operators.”
The last question, of course, is the perennial: Who should pay for it?
“When we think of port gates in the future, it will really be a combination of who gives the capital to build and operate this port gate, and a conversation with the city, as far as access to these port areas can be, and what advantages and disadvantages may have been to a community, having open-access vertiports versus non-open-access, ”Archer’s head of business development, Andrew Cummins, told TechCrunch in a recent interview.
Echoing Cummins, UML’s urban air mobility host, Clint Harper, said that while the city of Los Angeles has been aware of its preference for an “OEM ambiguous” infrastructure, much of the final network will depend on whether the ports are entirely private companies or built through public -private partnerships. “They are different funding models to bring infrastructure to reality,” he said. “Depending on what this funding model looks like, I think it will tell us whether it will be a multi-operator facility or a single operator facility.”
Volocopters Commercial Manager, Christian Bauer, told TechCrunch it was the company’s view that “we need an open system” for all OEMs. “We do not want to invest in real estate,” he added.
Work with the city and beyond
Many of these issues are big and are likely to take years to reconcile. In part, this is because cities are still waiting for guidance from federal regulators. Harper told TechCrunch that UML remains flexible as recommendations from the FAA, National Fire Protection Association and International Code Council building code continue to evolve.
For their part, air taxi OEMs are also working at the federal level to provide input to develop policies. Archer, Joby and Volocopter all also work with federal regulators and city councils.
Looking at the rest of the year and into the next, UML said it reached out to transport advocacy groups, e.g. Pedestrian safety or cyclist organizations, as well as social problem groups that focus on things like homelessness, to understand how to plan air mobility in cities. Equality is particularly important in transport planning to avoid repeating past mistakes: the Union of Concerned Researchers found e.g. Out of California’s colored and low-income residents being disproportionately exposed to exhaust emissions.
Much of the work on the city side is simply to ensure that relevant city departments are up to date on the latest developments with vertiports. Some of this will ensure that the building and the security and fire service, among others, can allocate full-time employees to prepare port ports and new infrastructure.
In the end, Morrissey said UML is trying to be methodical.
“I think the reality is that these vehicles are coming and we really want to do everything we can to plan it, but stay away from the hype cycle.”