The Biggest Problem With Flying Cars Is On The Ground
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The Biggest Problem With Flying Cars Is On The Ground

Vertical take-off-and-landing passenger vehicles promise to make George Jetson’s commute a reality—if only their manufacturers can figure out where to land them

By Christopher Mims
Wed, May 25, 2022 2:29pmGrey Clock 7 min

The startups and investors that have sent hopes soaring for “flying cars” could be in for a rough landing, in more ways than one.

Hundreds of companies, new ones and legacy aviation players alike, are working on such vehicles—also called air taxis or eVTOLs (short for electric vertical take off and landing). Five such startups have gone public in the past 12 months. They are trying to shape a near future in which taking a flying cab is an economically viable alternative to taking a terrestrial one.

The biggest stumbling block to that sci-fi vision, though, is rather down-to-earth: Flying-car companies haven’t figured out how to site, permit and construct enough places for their vehicles to land and take off to allow a workable business model for making and operating sky taxis.

The problem could have huge implications for the nascent flying-car industry, and for any hope that we will be commuting by air anytime soon. Early entrants to the industry, such as Joby Aviation, Lilium, Wisk, Airbus and Archer Aviation, have focused on the challenges of designing and building flying cars that work, and getting them certified as safe by the Federal Aviation Administration. Those challenges are considerable. Setting aside the cost of designing a prototype flying car in the first place, the process of submitting those designs to the FAA, testing them to verify they meet the agency’s specifications, and revising them can take years and is projected by analysts to cost up to $1 billion all by itself.

To date, most of the early investors in these companies have behaved as if solving those challenges is 90% of the work required to make flying cars commercially viable, says Todd Petersen, a consultant at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Lacuna Technologies, which creates software for cities to help them manage their transportation networks.

That ignores a range of other issues once the vehicles are ready to fly: where they will land and take off, how they will be integrated into existing air-traffic control systems, and whether the public will accept a large number of newfangled and comparatively large aircraft flying over their homes. Sorting out all that regulation and ground infrastructure is the “second 90%” of the problem of rolling out flying cars, says Mr. Petersen.

Mihir Rimjha is a senior aviation consultant at HMMH, a firm that helps governments and businesses with transportation planning. He has studied what are called “vertiports”—like heliports, but for eVTOLs, in depth, in work commissioned by NASA. He says that building out networks of rooftop vertiports in U.S. cities, on buildings and parking decks, will be critical for making flying taxi services and even privately owned flying cars a viable means of transportation. And, he adds, the companies haven’t been realistic about the hurdles involved.

For starters, there is the problem of how many suitable vertiport sites exist in America’s major cities. Here are just some of the factors that affect that equation: noise, the lack of airspace not already claimed by airports in cities like New York, and the necessity of retrofitting existing structures to be strong enough to accommodate flying vehicles and also provide them massive bursts of electricity for charging.

Setting those aside, every place that a vertical-take-off-and-landing vehicle is intended to land must be relatively free of surrounding structures—not just today, but indefinitely, says Mr. Petersen. This necessity is spelled out in the FAA’s rules on helicopter landing pads, which most in the industry believe will be the model for rules governing vertiports. That in turn means that getting FAA permission for a landing pad for a flying car requires figuring out all of the “glide paths” that such a vehicle can use when approaching a landing spot, should it suffer a mechanical failure.

Preserving such glide paths could mean, for example, that owners of property adjacent to vertiports might never be allowed to build anything higher than the vertiport—a particularly tricky and potentially controversial issue if cities are to play host to many such vertiports.

New York City’s history with helipads may prove instructive. Getting clearance from the FAA for a private landing pad is challenging, and residents generally oppose them—as they did with one granted to Amazon during its attempt to build an HQ in Long Island City. A crash on the roof of the Pan Am building in 1977 that killed five people has had a chilling effect on rooftop helipads in the city ever since.

Joby and Archer, which both went public last year, have said they aim to gain vertiport access by joining with Softbank-funded Reef Technologies, which manages parking lots and multistory parking decks across the U.S. Joby said last year that its collaboration would give it access to “an unparalleled range of rooftop locations across all key metropolitan areas in the U.S., as well as a mechanism to fund the acquisition and development of new skyport sites.”

A spokeswoman for Joby said that the company is “focused initially on existing aviation infrastructure and convertible assets,” such as the aforementioned parking garages.

Archer declined to comment on its vertiport plans.

Erick Corona, head of product development at Wisk, says his company believes it can sell more than enough of its autonomous vehicles to users of existing heliport and airport infrastructure to create a viable business. Eventually, vertiport developers like SkyPorts—a partner of Wisk—will be able to create vertiports where there is demand.

Further in the future, flying cars could get their own dedicated highways in the sky, he adds.

Jeremy Ford, head of property strategy at Reef, says that many U.S. cities already have heliports, but that it is still “very early innings” for his company and for flying-car companies in terms of figuring out how vertiports will actually be constructed, and where they will be placed.

Ricky Sandhu is at the forefront of trying to solve the vertiport problem, and he says that skeptical analyses of what’s next for the flying car industry are “absolutely right and completely on the money.”

He is founder and chief executive of Urban-Air Port, which recently opened what it says is the world’s first operational urban vertiport, called Air One, in a parking lot near a train station in Coventry, England. Mr. Sandhu is an architect who has led design teams on major infrastructure projects. In 2017, while consulting for Airbus on its flying-car efforts, he had a lightbulb moment: For this new mode of transportation to really take off, someone needed to work with landlords, local air-traffic controllers, national governments and city zoning boards to give the vehicles places to touch ground.

Air One has for the past few weeks hosted around 10 drone flights a day. Despite close collaboration with local and national air-traffic controllers and the city of Coventry, which is funding the vertiport, Air One has had teething issues, says Mr. Sandhu. Recently, for example, a large cargo drone was supposed to fly from Air One and land on the roof of a parking deck elsewhere in the city. But the builders of an office tower under development near the flight path raised safety objections, so the drone could only take off, fly in a circle and land again.

“Without the proper infrastructure, investment in eVTOLs is at risk,” says Mr. Sandhu.

Infrastructure challenges have led Air, an Israeli startup, to pursue a different strategy: creating flying cars that will be owned by individuals and can hop between privately owned vertiports. Air intends to bypass the high level of FAA certification required of aircraft that carry passengers, and the need to operate vertiports, by selling its flying cars directly to individuals who will pilot them themselves, says CEO Rani Plaut. Some of the company’s customers are already planning vertiports attached to their homes, he adds.

Stock-market investors are showing skepticism about flying-car companies. In step with the general selloff of shares in tech companies that have yet to show a profit, the valuations of the five flying-car companies that have gone public in the past year via SPAC (Vertical, Joby, Archer, Lilium and Eve) have declined significantly since their peaks at the beginning of April. Joby alone has lost about $2.4 billion in value, or 35% of its value at its peak on March 31.

Skeptics point to other reasons for caution. Dr. Rimjha co-wrote a report published last year which found that almost none of the assumptions touted by air-taxi companies that have recently gone public seem realistic: not their cost-per-vehicle figures, or their assumptions about cost per mile to operate these vehicles, or the time it will take to turn these vehicles into a commercial service.

When it went public, Joby projected it would cost $1.3 million to build each vehicle. Antonio Trani, a professor of engineering at Virginia Tech and Dr. Rimjha’s co-author, estimates, based on decades of evaluating aircraft, that after the FAA is done certifying Joby’s vehicle, the true price will be between $2 million and $3 million. Joby has also predicted that operating costs for its vehicles will be 86 cents a passenger mile. Dr. Trani thinks the actual figure will be between $3 and $4 a passenger mile.

The analysis also found that companies won’t be able to put vertiports where people most want to travel. Taking into consideration all that’s required in the places in America’s cities where there could be the greatest demand for flying cars, like dense urban cores, “we can’t really find much space for vertiports, even on rooftops,” says Dr. Rimjha.

For future vertiports, “permitting is a real issue,” says Mike Whitaker, a former FAA administrator who is now chief commercial officer at Supernal, a subsidiary of Hyundai that is working on a flying car of its own. It’s possible that cities will be forced to put vertiports in more outlying and low-lying areas—abandoned shopping malls could be ideal—and that access to such an amenity could cause more real-estate development around such an asset, he adds.

That would add time to any such trip for commuters or even just rich people who want to get out of town—and based on historical evidence, that would have a big impact on how much they use such services, says Dr. Rimjha.

That could force air-taxi companies to rethink their business models, perhaps to focus on smaller markets, such as replacing part of the world’s existing fleet of helicopters.

In the short term, these forces mean that “regional air mobility”—flights between cities and towns—is a more likely application for eVTOLs than flights within cities, says Robin Riedel, co-leader of the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility and a partner at the consulting firm.

All the time and effort required to create the ground infrastructure for flying cars could also mean companies that can afford to play a long game could be the ones that ultimately succeed. If falling stock prices and a scarcity of investment force consolidation in the flying-car industry, this could mean legacy aerospace companies, not disrupters, might someday build our Jetsons future.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: May 14, 2022


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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Retro Kitchens Are Everywhere—and the Ultimate Rejection of the Sterile Luxury Trend

Playful 1950s style spotlights details like coloured cabinets, checkerboard and mosaic tile patterns, vintage lighting, and SMEG appliances

Mon, Apr 22, 2024 6 min

The 1950s spawned society’s view of kitchens as the heart of the home, a hub for gathering, cooking, eating and socializing. Thus, it makes perfect sense that the same decade could inspire today’s luxury kitchens.

“The deliberate playfulness and genius of the era’s designers have enabled the mid-century style to remain a classic design and one that still sparks joy,” said James Yarosh, an interior designer and gallerist in New Jersey.

That playful style spotlights details like coloured cabinets, checkerboard and mosaic tile patterns, vintage lighting, and SMEG appliances—all of which are a conspicuous rejection of the sterile, monochrome kitchens that have defined luxury home design for years. One of the hottest brands to incorporate into retro-style kitchens, SMEG is turning up more these days. But the question is: How do you infuse a colourful refrigerator and other elements from this nostalgic era without creating a kitschy room?

“The key to a modern, fresh look in your kitchen is to reference, not imitate, signature looks of the 1950s,” said New York-based designer Andrew Suvalsky, who often laces retro style throughout the rooms he designs. He said using the period as inspiration will steer you away from imagining a garish space.

“When it comes to incorporating that retro-esque look, it’s a fine dance between looking beautiful and looking kitschy,” added Lisa Gilmore, a designer in Tampa, Florida. Gilmore suggested balancing contemporary pieces with vintage touches. That balance forges a functional yet attractive design that’s easy to live with while evoking a homey atmosphere––and ultimately, a room everyone wants to be in.

Colour Reigns Supreme

Suvalsky said one way to avoid a kitschy appearance is to mingle woods and colours, such as lacquered base cabinets and walnut wall cabinets, as he did in his Montclair, New Jersey, kitchen.

“Mixing colours into your kitchen is most effective when it’s done by colour-blocking––using a single colour across large areas of a space––in this case, zones of cabinetry,” he explained. He tends to lean toward “Easter egg colours,” such as baby chick yellow and pale tangerine. These soft pastels can suggest a starting point for the design while lending that retro vibe. But other hues can spark a vintage feel as well.

A mid-century-inspired kitchen by Blythe Interiors.
Natalia Robert

“Shades of green and blue are a timeless base foundation that work for a 1950s vintage look,” said designer Jennifer Verruto of Blythe Interiors in San Diego. But wood isn’t off the table for her, either. “To embrace the character of a mid-century home, we like a Kodiak stain to enhance the gorgeous walnut grain,” she said. “This mid-tone wood is perfect for contrasting other lighter finishes in the kitchen for a Mid-Century Modern feel.”

Since colour is subjective, a kitchen lined with white cabinetry can assume a retro aesthetic through accoutrements and other materials, emanating that ’50s vibe.

“The fun of retro designs is that you can embrace colour and create something that feels individual to the house and its homeowner, reflecting their tastes and personality,” Yaosh said. He recommended wallpaper as an option to transform a kitchen but suggested marrying the pattern with the bones of the house. “Wallpaper can create a mid-century or retro look with colours and hand-blocked craftsmanship,” he said. “Mauny wallpapers at Zuber are a particular favourite of mine.”

Suvalsky suggested Scalamandre wallpapers, for their 1950s patterns, and grass cloth, a textile that was often used during that decade. He also likes House of Hackney, a brand that “does a great job reinventing vintage prints in luscious colours,” he noted. “Many of their colourways invert the typical relationship between light and dark, with botanical prints in dark jewel tones set over light, more playful colours.”

Materials Matter

Beyond wall covering, flooring, countertops and backsplashes can all contribute to the 1950s theme. Manufactured laminate countertops, specifically Formica, were all the rage during the decade. But today’s high-end kitchens call for more luxurious materials and finishes.

“That’s a situation where going the quartz route is appropriate,” Gilmore said. “There are quartzes that are a through-body colour and simple if someone is doing colorued cabinetry. A simplified white without veining will go a long way.” She also recommended Pompei quartz Sunny Pearl, which has a speckled appearance.

A kitchen designed by James Yarosh that incorporates pops of yellow.
Patricia Burke

But for those who welcome vibrant colour schemes, countertops can make a bold statement in a vintage kitchen. Gilmore said solid surface materials from the era were often a colour, and quartz can replicate the look.

“Some brands have coloured quartz, like red,” she said. But keeping countertops neutral allows you to get creative with the backsplash. “I‘d pull in a terrazzo backsplash or a bold colour like a subway tile in a beautiful shade of green or blush,” Gilmore said. “Make the backsplash a piece of art.”

Suvalsky also leans toward bright and daring––such as checkerboards––for the backsplash. But depending on the kitchen’s design, he’ll go quieter with a double white herringbone [tile] pattern. “Either version works, but it must complement other choices, bold or simple, in the design,” he explained.

Neutral countertops with a bold backsplash, designed by Lisa Gilmore.
Native House Photography

Likewise, his flooring choice almost always draws attention. “My tendency is more toward very bold, such as a heavily veined marble or a pattern with highly contrasting tones,” he noted. Yarosh suggested slate and terrazzo as flooring, as these materials can make an excellent backdrop for layering.

Forge a Statement With Vintage Appliances 

As consequential as a kitchen’s foundation is, so are the appliances and accoutrements. While stainless steel complements contemporary kitchens, homeowners can push the design envelope with companies like SMEG when making appliance selections for a retro-style kitchen. Although Suvalsky has yet to specify a SMEG fridge, he is looking forward to the project when he can.

“I think they work best when the selected colour is referenced in other parts of the kitchen, which helps to integrate these otherwise ‘look at me’ pieces into the broader design,” he noted. “They are like sculptures unto themselves.”

“For our mid-century-inspired projects, we’ve opted for Big Chill and the GE Cafe Series to bring a vintage look,” Verruto added. Similar to SMEG, Big Chill and GE offer a vintage vibe in a wide selection of colours and finishes, alongside 21st-century performance.

Can’t commit to a full-size appliance? Sometimes, a splash is enough. Gilmore tends to dust her retro kitchens with a coloured kettle or toaster since her clients are likelier to add a tinge with a countertop appliance or two. “Mint green accessories make it pop, and if in five years they are over it, it’s not a commitment,” she said. “It’s a great way to infuse fun and colour without taking a major risk.”

Deck out the Breakfast Nook

Kitchen dining areas present the opportunity to introduce retro lighting, furniture, and accessories to complete the look. Flea markets and antique markets are excellent places to hunt for accompaniments.

“Dome pendants and Sputnik chandeliers are iconic styles that will infuse vintage charm into your kitchen while also easily complementing a variety of other styles,” Verruto said.

A retro breakfast nook desinged by Andrew Suvalsky.
DLux Editions

Suspend a vintage light fixture over the classic Saarinen table, and you can’t go wrong.

“Saarinen Tulip Tables are almost always guaranteed to deliver a home run in nearly any interior, especially a 1950s-themed kitchen,” Suvalsky said. “The simplicity of its form, especially in white, makes it nearly impossible to clash with.”

To really channel the vibe of this era, Verruto suggested local vintage stores and brands such as Drexel Heritage and Lexington. Dressing the windows counts, too. “Cafe curtains in a chintz pattern will make for a fabulous finishing touch,” she said.

Meanwhile, Yarosh delights in selecting tabletop items, including novelty stemware and other trappings ubiquitous in the 1950s. “Mid-century kitchens also need to have pedestal cake plates and maybe a cloche to keep a cake,” he mused. “I love the opportunity to curate these details down to the correct fork and serving pieces.”


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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