SXSW (South by Southwest) is hailed as the world’s leading conference for trends in technology, society and politics. This year’s gathering highlighted mobility in particular and not just as part of the official programme, but also in Hamburg as well. A panel discussion on Flying Taxis and Ambulance Drones – Sci-Fi 2 Reality hosted by ZAL (Center of Applied Aeronautical Research and the Cluster Hamburg Aviation was also part of SXSW’s official agenda.
Any substance to all the hype?
Emphasis was on whether there is any substance to the much-hyped issue of urban air mobility and on how to create a long-term market for air taxis and drone services in metropolitan regions like Hamburg. Panellists included the Munich-based all-electric air taxi start-up Lilium, one of the world’s most prominent providers of urban air mobility with over EUR 100 million in venture capital (from Frank Thelen, one of the “lions” on VOX TV’s show, “The Lion’s Den” for founders, Niklas Zennström, founder of Skype, and China’s Tencent tech group). Apart from discussing technical means of implementation, emphasis was also on the type of drive as well as the role of authorities and the public. Experts were unanimous that urban air mobility would only have a chance, if the new technology caters to broad swaths of the population. The level of noise, possible infrastructure on the ground and integrating new means of transport into the existing air traffic system are among the critical aspects. This comes against the backdrop of sharing the skies with existing commercial aircraft, police and rescue helicopters.
ITS World Congress 2021 in Hamburg
The panel at SXSW proved exciting for Hamburg as a business location for two reasons: On the one hand, Hamburg is one of the official twin cities of the European urban air mobility initiative, which aims to gain experience and learn more about possible civil applications of the new technology in the coming years. The urgent transport of tissue samples by drone, for instance, between hospitals and laboratories, or to fly over dikes to inspect them in the event of flooding. On the other hand, Hamburg 2021 will be the venue of the ITS World Congress (Intelligent Transport Systems), where urban air mobility will also play a pivotal role. The Hamburg ITS office was also part of the delegation.
Future vision – air taxis
The idea of flying over traffic jams in metropolitan regions quietly, environment-friendly and at the cost of a taxi fare also gave wings to the imaginations of the many international delegates at SXSW. The agenda featured several panels on urban air mobility including well-known representatives of Bell, Embraer X, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. However, even in the land of opportunity, people put their pants on one leg at a time. Even in hip Texas, air taxis will remain a dream for the next two to three years.
Trendy e-scooters at SXSW
Such winged visions were in sharp contrast with another trendy means of transport at SXSW this year. The era of electric scooters has dawned – at least in the United States. The streets of Austin are dotted with thousands of battery-powered pedal scooters winding their way in and out of traffic. Many suppliers are vying for customers including the popular rideshare apps Uber and Lyft. Apps like Car2Go or DriveNow locate e-scooters and pedelecs quickly and unlock them for price of U.S. 0.15 cents per minute making the vehicle really easy to rent. Yet, the new trend technology is not without pitfalls. Only very few users wore the helmet recommended by providers. This resulted in accidents with scooters and passengers who sustained cuts and abrasions or even worse injuries during SXSW 2019.
Guest commentary by Lukas Kaestner, Head of Marketing, PR and Events, Hamburg Aviation.