Jan 8, 2020

Flying Taxis

By Ed Goldman
One expression likely to face extinction in the next five years is when we impatiently tell our cab driver, ”Oh, just drop me off anywhere around here.” That may work when we’re stuck in rush-hour traffic and close enough to our destination to simply hoof it the rest of the way, probably arriving sooner than our cab would have—and certainly, saving us some money in the process.
But if we’re in one of the new battery-powered flying taxis several inventors are working on, jumping out will cost us more than the few dollars we might have saved by ending the ride abruptly—and it’s also likely to re-popularize Goofy’s famed cry as he accidentally leaves a ski slope or skyscraper in various Disney cartoons: “Yaaaa-haaaa-hooey!”

Daniel Wiegand of Lilium—the company he founded that he says has raised more than $100 million to build the world’s first flying taxi—recently told the New York Times, “This is the perfect means of transportation, something that can take off and land everywhere. It’s very fast, very efficient and low-noise.”

How fast? Almost 190 miles per hour, the inventor says.

I was really looking forward to sharing insights about the news media with the Greater Encino Young Dentists Association.

The fact that the model he’s developing will have a 36-foot wingspan tends to make me question that claim of “can take off and land everywhere.” I’ve seen cab drivers having trouble parallel-parking BMW Mini-Coopers at the airport. Parking a pterodactyl (largest wingspan: 40 feet) may prove more of a challenge.

As for the speed, I once had a cabbie in L.A. hit 95 mph on the Harbor Freeway to get me to a speech I was going to otherwise miss. Since I was the one hired to deliver it, you can see why I encouraged him to break traffic and physics laws—as I lip-synced a prolonged, silent scream the whole way, feeling sure the cab was going to rattle itself into a state of implosion before we got there.
This was before consumer cellphones, which would have made it easy for me to simply call the hotel I was headed to and ask someone at the desk to give my sponsor a note that my flight had been delayed but I’d be there in 15 minutes, tops, and was really looking forward to sharing insights about the news media with the Greater Encino Young Dentists Association, or whatever group it was.
In truth, my flight had taken off and landed right on time. Unfortunately, I wasn’t on it when it did so. I had stepped onto the wrong plane, one that was also headed to Southern California but to a different airport. You could make a mistake like this in those days before TSA inspected your tickets and tonsils before you emplaned.
So let’s get real about these flying taxis.
On the one hand, I firmly believe that if God had wanted man to fly, He’d have given him a travel rewards program at birth.
The program you currently have most certainly didn’t come from Heaven. Why would a kind and just God require you to fly from San Francisco to Dallas, and from Dallas to Taos in order to get to your actual destination, Long Beach, which is normally a one-hour-plus-change flight from San Francisco—all to gain some points so that you won’t have to pay a dime the next time you fly to Bakersfield.
Well, we continue to insist on flying, even though the airlines have gone from serving us mediocre (but filling) meals to tossing bags of peanuts at us, like we’re zoo animals. Considering the legroom in most commercial flights, the zoo analogy might not be far off: We’ve come to accept sitting in claustrophobic cages miles above the earth as our new normal.
Our experience with gas stations should have taught us that the corporate world had started withdrawing its familiar amenities. We just went along with it when our local Shell dealer no longer pumped our fuel, checked our oil or wiped clean our windshields. Now, the gas stations hang TV monitors on their pumps and run promotional videos on them, often reminding us of what we ought to buy the next time we’re at a gas station. I imagine the oil companies think if we grow mesmerized by the videos, we’ll fill our tanks right up to the limit instead of stopping when they’re half full, as so many of us (though nobody I know) do.
On the other hand, I won’t be left behind.
Allow me to introduce my newest venture: Lemmedown, which is not only an airborne taxi but also a pilotless one. Named for both a character in a Jean-Luc Godard film (Lemmy Caution in 1965’s “Alphaville”) and where most of my customers will wish to be once aloft, Lemmedown is actually a decommissioned U.S. Army helicopter some pals and I have been tinkering with in our spare time. It can seat three or four people comfortably (since there won’t be a pilot to take up any room) and can fly at speeds up to 20 mph. Or so we think. Its reputed velocity may only partly explain its having been decommissioned; I’m sure the other part would have been its safety record had it ever gotten off the ground.
But since it never did, it has never crashed. Will your flying taxi be able to make that claim?


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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).