Urban air mobility master
By Cat Hofacker|February/March 2021
A year ago, Pamela Cohn took on a task she calls “building a startup inside of a giant behemoth.” As chief operating officer of Hyundai’s UAM Division, established in October 2019, Cohn directs the division’s internal operations and interactions with real estate developers, infrastructure planners and others whose decisions will impact the company’s plans for selling and operating air taxis to ferry passengers and goods locally. I called Cohn at her home office in Virginia to discuss the decisions ahead. Here’s our conversation, compressed and lightly edited.
Q: What makes an aviation consultant decide to work for a car company’s urban air mobility venture?
A: I’d been working in the UAM and the UAS industry for most of my career, and this was just such a great opportunity to kind of go and put all of the thinking and all of the consulting into practice and say, “OK, let’s take all of that stuff that we know about the vehicle, about the aerospace community and let’s work with this incredible company that really wants to make a difference and bring it to life.”
Q: With all the legacy and startup aerospace companies trying to enter the UAM market, what does Hyundai bring to the table?
A: Automotive has a really unique advantage because when you look at the scale of what we need to produce today and the affordability level that we’re hoping to produce at, that is something that has been unattainable for the aerospace industry. Even getting an extra one or two tails out the door every month is excruciatingly painful for most aviation players, both because of supply chain and manufacturing concerns and the way that it’s structured for QA/QC, quality assurance and quality control. Automotive can crack that code on affordability and high-scale production. Hyundai can actually bring that production level in line with the highest quality standards to get an affordable product to market in the right volumes. The other thing that’s really unique about automotive is that they’re very customer centric because they actually are a business-to-consumer company most of the time. A lot of the aerospace players are in the business-to-business space, and the way that they think about customers and the customer journey is a little bit removed from the actual customer experience. Companies in the car industry and particularly Hyundai are used to thinking about the individual customer journey and thinking about those very tactical pain points and how you can design around them, both in terms of products and services to meet it.
Q: So how does having a customer-first perspective affect the design of an air taxi?
A: Outside of actually building the vehicle, there’s that whole ecosystem of everything else that needs to happen from owning the vehicles, to financing the vehicles, to managing the fleet operations, to the flight service providers. In certain markets, we might simply build a vehicle and we’ll be selling them off to a lesser or to an operator, and so that’ll be a B2B experience. In other markets we might decide that we actually want to be the flight service provider, so there would be a much more B2C journey. We are taking that B2B component out of it when we think about how we design our vehicle. We’re really focusing on the customer journey and saying, “OK, even if we’re selling to another business in some cases, as opposed to directly at customers, whether they’re going to get on our vehicle or not is going to happen at the customer level.” And it’s a little bit different for UAM than for traditional aerospace where there’s not a lot of differentiation between different airlines and planes. The airplane design really doesn’t drive a customer’s decision about which airplane they decide to book in order to go on a vacation. For UAM, there are so many competing technologies and so many competing modes of mobility that it does matter to really get into that individual decision-making.
Q: What are the pain points for future UAM passengers that these aircraft designs must eliminate?
A: For us, user design and human-centered design goes beyond simply noise and how jittery the aircraft is and goes into how we make this inviting and exciting and a safe and comfortable part of your everyday experience. The big ones that we talk about are noise and making sure that this is a pleasant experience when you’re on the aircraft or when the aircraft is flying over your home or your business, or a park or a school. Those are going to be important parts of that user experience, that pain point. The second big one that we focus on is that seamless mobility journey. You shouldn’t have to think through multiple different types of mobility of how you get from point A to point B; it should just be a very seamless experience. You say, “OK, I’m at home. I need to get to work,” or “I’m at home. I need to get to school,” and you open up an app or whichever way we are booking travel in eight to 10 years. It’s probably going to be an intermodal journey, and I shouldn’t have to think about that intermodal component. I should just book it and then it should go and take me the way that I need to go, whether it’s an e-scooter and then a car, whether it’s a car and then a UAM vehicle, or a combination of everything above. Those are really important parts of the user experience, but I think one of the more nuanced ones is the way the vehicle looks and feels, which actually has a big role to play. There are so many products where images and lines can evoke different types of emotions and can make something an inviting experience or can make something a little bit of an anxiety-producing experience. Especially when we think about the aviation industry: People like us who work in the industry love aviation, so getting on a plane is really exciting and we love airports. But for the average consumer, getting on a plane can kind of feel scary. So thinking through what are those components of design, whether it’s in the shape of the vehicle and fuselage, whether it’s in the interface that we have inside of the vehicle and the way that they interact with the outside world or they interact with the pilot, all of those things can make this a really pleasant or very anxiety- producing experience.
Q: One very recent pain point is the social distancing prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Given that many of these UAM operations rely on a ridesharing model, do Hyundai and other manufacturers need to rethink that design?
A: I’m very hopeful that by the time we begin passenger flights in 2028, this is over, otherwise I’m going to be very sad. But we’re also being really cognizant that the pandemic might change the dynamic, that the huge push toward ridesharing may alter because of what happened with the pandemic. So when we think about the way that we design our cabin, are there ways to do separation if it’s necessary? Are there ways that we can design as to have that comfort level if there’s another pandemic so that we can easily retrofit our taxis or make it part of our design if necessary? We’re not jumping too far in that direction right now, just because there is such a long timeline, and we think that these trends are going to really shift and shape over the coming years before they’re really set. But it is something that we consider, and it’s on our radar as we go through the design process.
Q: What have you learned about the pros and cons of different features that will be required in passenger air taxis versus cargo aircraft?
A: One lesson learned is that the needs of one city are incredibly different from the needs of another. You have the hypothesis walking in that, “Oh, that would make sense when you think about infrastructure networks,” because the flow of people and the topography of the city can vary so dramatically. Of course, infrastructure networks will look different and the need for different mobility services will look different. So that was one that wasn’t super surprising but definitely reaffirms a lot of our work so far. The other thing is people have different reactions to different types of technologies, what they are or are not comfortable with, if they come from different cultures. One of the big differences that I think everyone talks about all the time is autonomy. There is a very big age bias when you look at the data: Younger people are more comfortable with autonomous vehicles. They feel a lot more comfortable with the concept of ever going on one or seeing one inside of their environment, whereas older communities are a little bit more skeptical because they’re not digital natives. Those kinds of trends — whether they’re based on age, whether they’re based on where you’ve been or your exposure to different technologies in that society — they actually vary dramatically, even inside what you would consider a pretty homogenous group. During my consulting days we were doing a public acceptance study on drones and cargo. Inside of the United States, from state to state and city to city, there were dramatically different concerns about having UAS flying overhead. In more rural communities, a lot of it was about the impact on wildlife: What would the noise impact be? Whether it was their personal cats and dogs or the actual livestock that they were raising, how would that affect the breeding and the health and safety of those animals? In cities, it was a lot more about digital pollution and audio pollution and very practical questions about where aircraft would land. And the way that you address that, both in terms of how you address the communities but also how you might design some of the vehicles and services, is going to vary dramatically between the different areas.
Q: How do the vertiports or landing pads where people could be picked up or dropped off factor into the design of this new form of transportation?
A: The physical infrastructure is kind of the make-or-break aspect of a UAM market. It’s just a fancy flying science project if you don’t have a place to actually land and take off and a robust enough network of those places to service the community’s needs. A landing pad shouldn’t just be a landing pad. It should be something that people can get excited about. It should look different from different city to city. New York City is a lot more challenging than somewhere like Dallas or Houston, where it’s a little bit more spread out. That to me is one of the best places where we can bring the community together and have that be a really unique feature that adds to the city, as opposed to just taking up space inside of the city to support the UAM flights. The user experience journey inside of the vertiport or skyport — or whatever we end up calling them — that’s really critical because when you think about your journey through an airport, the airport plays a really big role in your entire journey in any form of aviation. If we’re able to make it a really inviting experience when you go to one of these landing pads, it’s going to impact the overall feeling people have and the overall sense of security and excitement for this new form of transportation.
Q: Another make-or-break element for UAM could be the transition from piloted flights to autonomous operations. What will it take for that handover to occur?
A: We do want to eventually get to autonomous operations because we believe that that’s actually going to make UAM flights safer and more efficient. Those two things are very important for our customers and for what we view as our role inside of the industry, but we’re not going to do it before the regulation is in place, before we have the conviction in the safety of these systems. And honestly, until the public is ready. There’s a very real chance that we as an industry will get conviction around the safety of the technology and the regulators get that conviction, but the public isn’t ready. That’s something that we take very seriously. Obviously, we would like to make autonomous flights capable as soon as possible, but at the same time we are not going to force it on the public. If they need an extra five, 10 years of having a pilot in the seat, then they get an extra five, 10 years of having a pilot in the seat.
Q: How would you measure the passenger experience during test flights of any air taxi designs?
A: We’re not talking publicly right now about our test flight schedule, but one thing that we are going to start doing, hopefully in the next couple of years, is augmented reality and virtual reality to test consumer reactions. We won’t be putting the public on this aircraft until it’s certified, and we’re going to need those insights before we get certified. So in order to get people’s reaction to these taxis, we’re looking into different tools through VR and AR. At the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show, we had a very early-stage version of this — not quite as robust as it needs to be — where the seats moved and you had the goggles on. That’s the first stage of what we want to do, but eventually we’re going to do AR and VR testing in a replica, in a mockup of our air taxis, but they won’t be flying because we want to ensure safety as our absolute first priority.
Q: If that 2028 entry-to-service date holds, Hyundai might not be the first UAM on the market. Is there a concern that by not being first out of the gate you might miss some of the early passengers?
A: We don’t necessarily think the first to market is going to be the market leader. There’s a couple of big reasons why we chose 2028 instead of an earlier date; one of the big things is we just don’t think the market will be ready until 2028 or so. The time it’s going to take to build the infrastructure networks and to design them in a purposeful manner that meets the needs of communities, that’s really long. Infrastructure lead times and planning and development through state and local authorities and departments of transportation, it takes a very long time, as it should because these are very important decisions that are being made that will change the landscape of a community. We don’t think that the infrastructure is necessarily going to be there in time, so what we’re really focusing on is making sure that we get the right design for our vehicles and all of our services and products, that we get the right user feedback and that the public is ready to get on these and the infrastructure is ready. The confluence date of that is around 2028 to 2030, so that’s why we’re hoping to get into the market in 2028 and be one of the market leaders as the market matures and becomes robust throughout the 2030s.
Q: You’ve established that infrastructure will likely differ from city to city. In suburban and rural areas where these landing pads might be farther apart, how might that infrastructure look different?
A: Actually, suburban and rural areas are great for infrastructure because they have some space available. It makes it a lot easier to make these hubs and these vertiports and to actually do a really interesting, exciting consumer-centered design for them because you have the space and you have the ability and it’s actually a lot less expensive to be able to develop out there. In terms of distance, will we ever have longer missions because there are further destinations? I do think so. When you look at not necessarily the Gen. 1 vehicles, but Gen. 2 and Gen. 3 vehicles, air mobility is going to be important. That will require, most likely, different vehicle designs. We believe the battery propulsion will be sufficient for the initial types of routes that we’re going to be doing in cities and suburban areas. They’re going to be something like 20- to 30-minute hops, but the aircraft will be capable of going farther than that.
Q: The infrastructure you’re describing sounds too big for one company to create, so who needs to get on board to build all these landing pads or ground stations?
A: It’s going to take an actual village to make this happen. We will need partnerships with state and local governments so that we can have a really clear connection with their planning and make sure that we are thinking about not just what routes are profitable but the community goals in terms of access and opportunity and equity. We are going to make profitable networks of air taxis in the sky, but ones that actually meet community needs beyond simply having a profitable transportation business. Individual communities have different pain points that often we don’t see when we look at the macro level of the city, and so when you look at those communities, you have to ask, “Where is it really, really hard for you to get to right now?” Then you can actually design where the infrastructure will best be placed to suit what they need on a day-to-day basis and what their journey looks like. Partnerships also will be needed with real estate developers and financiers. In more densely populated cities, for example, a lot of this is going to have to go on top of existing infrastructure, and that means working with real estate owners and having them see UAMs as an amenity that people inside of their buildings are going to want. The other big partnerships, of course, will be with other mobility service providers to make sure that we’re designing the infrastructure not just for the UAM vehicles and for the Hyundai vehicles but also for other mobility service providers that are going to be there.
Q: In the distant future, do you think the UAM market could ever resemble the automotive market: dozens of companies offering lots of similar models?
A: At least for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be a much smaller number of options. These aren’t going to be personally owned aircraft, so the individual touch of “I definitely want leather inside of my interior” or “I want blue leather inside of my interior and a red exterior” will be less important as we learn toward more of that ridesharing economy. I don’t think air taxis are ever going to replace cars. I think that they’re going to be a complementary system. Cities and suburban areas are becoming more and more congested, and over the next 20, 30 years that problem’s only going to get significantly worse. The answer to it isn’t just air, and it isn’t just ground, and it isn’t just micromobility. It’s a combination of all of these things.