SXSW Panel Recap: Urban Air Mobility: What's Next?

Like winter, personal air transport is coming. But for who?

Room for how many? A cabin prototype for the eVTOL, the proposed personal air transportation from Eve, and one of the topics of the discussion at the Urban Air Mobility: What's Next? panel at SXSW (Photo by John Anderson)

How about a flying car, is that what you want? Is it what you’ve been wanting for years now – thanks, The Jetsons; thanks, Bladerunner – but, nah, a world of flying cars never really seems to happen in any substantial, generally accessible way, does it?

At SXSW’s “Urban Air Mobility” presentation from Eve Air Mobility and their corporate and civic associates, the perennial flying-car promise is renewed – or perhaps (tipping a Miskatonic cap to Herbert West) re-animated for our current tech and social environment, appearing now in the still-aspirational guise of some mighty snazzy Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) vehicles.

André Stein, co-CEO of Eve Air Mobility; former FAA administrator Marion Blakey; the City of Orlando’s Kyle Shepard; and Matt Thurber, editor-in-chief of Aviation International News: This was the quartet of experts hashing out the basics of what it’s going to take to bring these flying cars to the mass market.

Orlando’s Shepard was there, because the Disney-pumped tourist mecca has, for one thing, long been air-trafficked with helicopters and is gung-ho about moving into a more robust and electric-thus-supposedly-sustainable phase of skybound urban transportation. Blakey brought her decades of trenches-toiling for the regulatory FAA to bear on the topic of safety and practical applications. Journalist Thurber, who also served as the talk’s moderator, provided a sort of big-picture view steeped in aviation history. And of course Stein’s company is working on some really nice skymobiles to sell to every city on the planet. “Eve,” goes the SXSW event description, “is reimagining mobility and how people will commute and travel both today and in the future.”

It’s not happening tomorrow, no, and it might still be a few years out – depending on how soon the effective hardware is able to be assembly-lined into mass production, on how quickly governmental bodies can agree on what restrictions are necessary to prevent aeronautic clusterfucks, on the speed with which potential markets can be enticed to adapt such a novel gambit. So. Many. Moving. Parts.

But it’s coming, they tell us. Just like everyone’s been telling us, more and more, about autonomous robots and computer/brain interfaces and artificial intelligence: It’s coming.

Matt Thurber (l), André Stein, Marion Blakey, and Kyle Shephard on the Urban Air Mobility: What’s Next? panel during South By Southwest 2023 on March 13, 2023 (Photo by John Anderson)

And if that sounds reminiscent of the warning issued by Ned Stark at Games of Thrones’ beginning, I’d suggest it’s with good reason. Not to rain on any entrepreneurial parade here, but – OK, never mind, let it pour – who are these flying cars for? Who, in a world of polarizing wealth disparity, will be enjoying this new vehicular boon to humanity? Spoiler alert: Not people already trying to navigate the modern world via inadequate or just-workable public transportation; not people who can barely afford to keep their ground-cars repaired in order to scrape a living from this system we’ve so giddily built; not the rank-and-file members of society, the majority of struggling hoi polloi who won’t be able to snag a convenient eVTOL jaunt out of the city for a get-away-from-it-all vacation when the urge strikes.

You don’t want to think about this, though, do you? It’s not glamorous, it’s not state-of-the-art, it’s not galvanized by go-get-‘em industry disruptors with a sense of grand adventure. Naysaying doesn’t leverage any synergy other than the usual mix of misgivings about who’ll be left behind as all this bright and shiny stuff caters to the cream of the capitalist crop.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe these guys have that all accounted for. Maybe this sort of aeronautic bonanza will be just the thing to empower all citizens, to provide transportational equity, to lift all flying boats with its rising tide? Or maybe that’s beside the point anyway? Maybe it’s about industry and progress and the-poor-are-always-with-us-so-STFU?

I mean, I should talk, right? Damned bougie old journalist?

But I just have to wonder if they’re helping pave our road to hell, the ones who take a flying car away from Omelas.


Urban Air Mobility: What's Next?

Transportation Track

Mon 13, 11:30pm, Austin Convention Center


Catch up with all of The Austin Chronicle's SXSW 2023 coverage.

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