To help prepare Los Angeles for the new technology, a nonprofit spun out of the office of the mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti, is working with air taxi developers and local residents to develop a policy toolkit before business operations. later that decade.
There is a lot to define until then. First and foremost, the aircraft must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration – a gigantic task in itself. But even beyond the certification of aircraft, companies will also have to provide infrastructure, namely vertiports, or where air taxis will take off and land. And with these come real issues like noise pollution and zoning laws that can affect not only city residents, but other transportation networks as well.
Urban Movement Labs was formed from the Mayor’s Economic Development Office in 2020 to become a stand-alone 501c (3) non-profit organization aimed at shaping the future of mobility in the city. This year, the organization entered into an Urban Air Mobility (UAM) partnership with the mayor’s office and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation to determine how the city can integrate UAM into the existing transportation infrastructure and networks of ” in a way that maximizes equity and accessibility.
The partnership is funded, in part, by Archer Aviation and Hyundai’s Urban Air Mobility division.
âWe have a commitment from Hyundai and Archer to focus on our assistance in the development of this policy toolkit,â Sam Morrissey, executive director of UML, told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “That’s it, policies regarding where these vehicles will fly, air routes, where these vehicles may land outside of commercial airportsâ¦ and other related policies regarding planning for [vertiports]. “
Joby Aviation has coordinated with UML since the inception of the organization, and German UAM developer Volocopter joined as a new UML partner earlier this month.
âOur role is to really facilitate the new deployment of technology in Los Angeles,â Morrissey said. He added that the city wanted to avoid the ex post facto rush to regulate transportation technology, like what happened after the launch of Uber, Lyft and scooter rental services.
âParticularly in 2016 when Uber Elevate started talking about flying taxis in cities, the city of Los Angeles said,â We ââneed to have a separate entity that can help focus this. “”
The infrastructure challenge
UML presents itself as a three-lane bridge between the city, private industry and, above all, Los Angelenos. The three perspectives may not always align. The launch of electric air taxis, in particular, presents unique challenges that need to be addressed, ranging from fire hazards and zoning issues to noise pollution and issues that cause disagreements among stakeholders.
Think about vertiports. While the certification of the aircraft is the exclusive competence of the FAA, “if you want to build new ground infrastructure, it is obviously a municipal and urban issue”, Gregory Bowles, head of government affairs for Joby, explained to TechCrunch. “The way you want to use that, the access to that, the permits, these are all city councils [issues]. “
Morrissey said companies primarily approach route planning from a market perspective – for example, looking at where people are currently using Uber Black, the rideshare company’s premium service – while Urban Movement Labs wants to overlay this to a regional planning approach that represents how UAM would support existing transport networks in the long term.
Another issue is location and zoning laws. Beyond the easy-to-imagine NIMBYism that can arise once potential vertiport sites are located, operational tempo or flights per hour could affect the number of air taxi operators that can use a given site.
While Archer and Joby have both announced private partnerships with REEF Technology to convert assets like parking lots into vertiport sites (and UML recognizes that these locations make a lot of sense for a number of reasons), the regulations themselves of the city should always be taken into account. before air taxis can start transporting customers.
âConverting the roof of a parking structure looks good, but you still need Building and Safety to step in and say that this bridge can handle these planes, that the fire extinguishing needs are sufficient,â he said. Morrissey said.
A major question mark is whether and how many vertiports will be for exclusive use or shared between companies. One can imagine air taxi take-off and landing sites as airport gates (homogeneous and shared between all airlines) or more like service stations (branded, competitive and offering different amenities). This too could be another potential point of contention between the city, its residents and the air taxi companies.
At least initially, however, many companies may decide that working together – to set noise and billing standards, for example – is the faster route to overall commercialization and adoption than working separately.
âWe don’t really see this as a competitive space,â Bowles said of Joby’s work on vertiport standards. âThis is something that we have to build, so we are working with many other OEMs and future operators. “
The last question, of course, is the age-old one: who is going to pay for this?
âWhen we think about vertiports in the future, it’s really going to be a combination of who is providing the capital to build and operate that vertiport, and a conversation with the city about who can access those vertiports and what the benefits and potentials might be. disadvantages. to be in a community, to have open access versus non-open access vertiports, âArcher business development manager Andrew Cummins told TechCrunch in a recent interview.
Echoing Cummins, Clint Harper, UML’s urban air mobility specialist, said that while the city of Los Angeles has made it clear its preference for “equivocal OEM” infrastructure, much of the end network will depend on whether vertiports are wholly private companies or built through public-private partnerships. âThese are different funding models to make infrastructure happen,â he said. âDepending on what that funding model looks like, I think it will tell us whether or not it will be a multi-operator type installation or a single operator installation. “
Commercial Director of Volocopter, Christian Bauer, said TechCrunch it was the company’s view that âwe need an open systemâ for all OEMs. âWe don’t want to invest in real estate,â he added.
Working with the city and beyond
Many of these questions are important and will likely take years to come to terms. In part, that’s because cities are still waiting for advice from federal regulators. Harper told TechCrunch that UML remains flexible as recommendations from the FAA, National Fire Protection Association, and the International Code Council building code continue to evolve.
For their part, air taxi OEMs also work at the federal level to help shape policy. Archer, Joby and Volocopter also work with federal regulators and municipalities.
As for the rest of the year and into the next, UML said it is reaching out to transport advocacy groups, such as pedestrian or cyclist safety organizations, as well as social issues groups that focus on things like roaming, to understand how to plan for urban air mobility. . Fairness is especially important in transportation planning to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past: the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, has found that people of color and low-income California residents are at risk of harm. disproportionately to tailpipe emissions.
Much of the job on the city side is simply to ensure that the relevant city departments are up to date on the latest developments with the vertiports. Part of this comes down to ensuring that the building and the security and fire departments, among others, can assign full-time staff to prepare vertiports and new infrastructure.
Ultimately, Morrissey said that UML tries to be methodical.
“I think the reality is these vehicles are coming, and we really want to do everything we can to plan for it, but stay out of the hype cycle.”