Flying cars

Scenes of flying cars is something we know from movies like Blade Runner, Star Wars or The Fifth Element. The air space in such visual spectacles has become the place to be. In real life, however, individual mobility is still far removed from such fictional worlds – unless one talks to someone like Patrick Nathen, co-founder of the Urban Air Mobility company Lilium. In his words, travelling through the air sounds much less utopian. Lilium wants to take off into the third dimension by means of an environmentally friendly on-demand air jet. We spoke with Patrick about the chances local air mobility offers for people living in cities as well as in the countryside and what effects this could have on the structure of our cities.

New York City - Manhattan overview
The Lilium Jet is intended as an individual Urban Air Mobility solution to connect urban and rural destinations. (Photo: Lililum)

topos: Patrick, how do you see the future of cities?
NATHEN: I see it as very crowded. If you take into account that in 2050 nearly 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in urbanized areas, it is to be expected that cities the world over will morph into highly compact, massively cramped metropolises. This will obviously lead to a surge of inner-city traffic, but also an increase of traffic between city and country. Permanent congestion will be the rule instead of the exception. Not even to mention the intensification of air pollution and other environmental impacts.

topos: This sounds distinctly negative. What would have to happen, in your view, for the city to be able to offer a positive future?
NATHEN: Mobility will have to change. Mobility determines our well-being as urban residents and also as people living in the countryside or the suburbs. I do believe, however, that if growing numbers of people in urban agglomerations compete not only for space, but also for the ways in which they move around, we will need additional space in order to provide sufficient room and opportunities for mobility. That’s why I’m convinced it will be necessary to expand mobility into the third dimension, i.e. into the air space. Obviously this should not be done through arbitrary means. Rather, it must be realized sustainably, meaning we cannot simply let our stinking, noisy traffic conquer the air space as well. Instead, we will have to use environmentally friendly vehicles.

topos:… like your Lilium Jet. What are the specific features of this vehicle?
NATHEN: Our Urban Air Taxi Jet has 36 electric engines, it takes off vertically and can be operated autonomously. The engines are integrated into the wings and run very quietly. We have already completed the first successful test flights on an airfield in Munich. The plan is that this jet will be able to transport up to five people from A to B – within the city, but also from the city to destinations in the countryside and suburbs. This way, the technology provides relief for the urban traffic infrastructure and offers new connections into the city for residents of rural areas. This new form of mobility would make life in the countryside more attractive and thereby decrease population pressure in cities.

topos: What is the operating range of the new vehicle?
NATHEN: The Lilium Jet is projected to fly at a speed of 300 kmh and have a range of 300 km. Such a range will guarantee a mobility that reaches beyond the confines of the city.

topos: Patrick, some media have criticized you for holding out prospects of a range of operation that is not technically feasible. But disregarding this issue for a moment: Is it possible that there are too many critics who are afraid of the mobility revolution? Traffic as we know it, due to all the problems that come with it, seems to be no longer adequate to the challenges of our time.
NATHEN: There are indeed many critics but there is nothing wrong with that. We need a debate that involves all members of society, addresses the interests and needs of citizens across the board and makes everyone want to participate. This is the only way to bring about a fundamental transformation of our mobility, to relieve our cities and create closer ties between rural and urban areas – without putting further strain on the environment. Acceptance is an important goal here. We work in the field of individual Urban Air Mobility (UAM), which is a very new area of business. Introducing the kind of vehicles we are developing would completely change our cities and how we move around in them. It’s a prospect that will produce fears. And such fears are legitimate, especially as long as the technical, technological and political framework that UAM requires has not been set up. A lot of work remains to be done.

topos: Do you talk to representatives of municipalities and cities, to urban planners and architects? This is not just about flying air taxis, there is also the issue of creating the infrastructure needed to make that possible.
NATHEN: We not only want to provide the jets, but we also want to be involved in building the take-off and landing infrastructure as well as shaping the customer experience and the processes involving passengers. For this we will need partners, just like any other company working in Urban Air Mobility. These partners are the cities, political institutions and authorities, architects, urban planners, mobile communication companies. Without them, our vision will not materialize. Urban planners and architects in particular will be crucial here, as they are the ones to integrate this new form of mobility into urban planning regimes. One important issue will be existing infrastructures. How can this type of mobility be embedded into existing facilities? How can the structures that are already there be converted and expanded, instead of building new ones?

topos: I’m thinking of densely built cities like Tokyo, New York or Mexico City… Where will your jets take off and land? How does one change taxis? Where will they be parked? Do you have concepts of how all this can be worked out in a well-functioning way?
NATHEN: Our vehicles will be capable of taking off and landing in the middle of cities, as they are very quiet and take off vertically. Possible places would be roofs, airfields, car parks, the facilities of existing park-and-ride systems. Any of these places could be used as a hub from where people can get on and off air taxis, change jets, and where the vehicles’ batteries will be recharged. The architectures of these hubs can be based on a template that is usable for many locations. And they can be set up where needed. Ideally at large traffic junctions. This will also guarantee a certain flexibility so that we can position these hubs in any city, regardless of the type of existing built structures. Obviously these are only ideas and concepts at this point. But there are, in fact, cities that already use Urban Air Mobility successfully. We will be able to build off of that.

topos: In other words, your vision goes in the direction of integrating UAM into the existing traffic concepts of cities?
NATHEN: Precisely. Mixed mobility is the answer to the question of how we will travel in urban environments in the future. I use car sharing, I rely on Uber, take the subway for part of the distance, I walk, perhaps I use an e-scooter or a bicycle, and another part I cover by air taxi. In my eyes this would work particularly well for those living in rural areas and working in the city. Such a mix of different forms of mobility might also be of interest to the world’s megacities – in today’s Shanghai, Delhi, London or Tokyo, if you want to travel ten kilometers, you are likely to spend hours caught in traffic jams. The same goes for vastly sprawling cities like Los Angeles… Mixed mobility could be the beginning of a transformation of our traffic patterns.

topos: Could be?
NATHEN: Yes, “could be”, because the problem is that while we have many different mobility services, they are not really coordinated. For a mobility flow to arise and for users to be able to choose between different options, it is necessary to have a platform that rethinks mobility in terms of going beyond the city limits and that coordinates it accordingly. So far, services exist separately side by side, but do not constitute an integrated “whole.” Here and there we find certain pilot projects that bring together public transportation and private mobility services, but what is lacking is a publicly instituted framework – a framework that would allow all the different types of mobility to become part of everyday life, have the various systems interlock and thus, generate maximum benefit for the users.

topos: Making UAM applicable for large numbers of residents in tomorrow’s cities, it will be necessary to redefine existing urban infrastructures and traffic management systems…
NATHEN: Indeed, and that is of course a huge task. Especially given the fact that, admittedly, a market for Urban Air Mobility does not even exist so far. The research we do concerns a sector of products regarding which the users are not even aware that they will have a need for them in the future. But in a similar way, this was the case with electric automobiles. And here we are currently being taught a lesson, even if it has much to do with the effects of climate change. It is precisely this circumstance that manned UAM is (still) a kind of playing field that makes it so difficult to speak in plain terms when it comes to rethinking urban infrastructures and traffic management systems.

topos: My last question, Patrick, concerns cities – as you mentioned already – that have already crossed the threshold into the third dimension. In Singapore, Mexico City and San Francisco, for example, helicopter taxis fly around already. Their operational costs are very high and they couldn’t be considered ordinary means of transportation, yet it is a first step. Which city, in your view, would particularly profit from UAM?
NATHEN: Basically all cities. But of course there are numerous agglomerations where people are caught in traffic jams for hours day after day. Many of the fast growing megacities in Asia in particular are close to a general traffic breakdown. These cities change rapidly, are highly dynamic and have no choice but to consider innovative solutions, because for them managing traffic, which involves the transport of millions of residents, commuters and tourists, is becoming an infeasible task. Or consider Paris. I can’t remember when it did not take around two hours to get from Charles de Gaulle airport to the inner city. Imagine we could simply fly over all the congested arteries…


Read the interview in topos 110 on mobility and get more insight into the world of urban mobility.