Going Direct: Understanding Boeing’s Entry Into Urban Mobility

When Boeing announced last week that it had made the first flight of an autonomous quadcopter and had teamed with other urban aerial mobility players, the takeaway was obvious. Boeing was all in on the urban air taxi game. Or was it?

First, about the craft. The craft is named the Boeing Autonomous Passenger Air Vehicle, that is, “PAV” and not “APAV?” We have no idea why they left the first “A” off either.

Regardless, the craft looks at first glance like any of the many other multi-copter style designs out there. It’s a little strange in that the whole thing is built upon what looks like a pair of steel girders—ugly doesn’t begin to describe it, and, yes, we know they’re not actually girders.

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At second glance, however, a couple of different features stand out, namely, the wing and the pusher engine. Why have those? Don’t multicopters exist in order to get rid of those features, which are commonly found on fixed-wing planes, which I guess this one is, at least in part. The Boeing V22 Osprey tilt-rotor is another hybrid lift aircraft that uses both helicopter like blades and propellers to give it both vertical lift capability and good forward speed.

While Boeing isn’t bragging about the craft’s top speed, there are reports it’s targeting 150 mph, which is really fast for a small, electric craft that’s shaped like this, so fast, in fact, that I’m taking a wait and see attitude on this, as I took with Eclipse’s sales projections for its little jet and the supersonic claims Jim Bede made for his BD-10 homebuilt jet.

Still, the craft, which was built at Boeing’s Aurora facility in Virginia, is a testament to the company’s commitment to urban mobility, which means, well, if Boeing is behind it, it’s bound to happen.

Hardly. One of the nice things about being Boeing is that it can develop things like autonomous vertical lift capable vehicles with very little risk. It’s not that it’s free. It still costs a bundle to do a project like this, and if Boeing is saving anything in the process it’s only because they already employ lots of brilliant engineers who spend their days working on stuff like this anyways. So while they might stand to lose tens of millions of dollars if PAV doesn’t pan out, a few tens of millions of dollars is, as some rich guy once famously said, “rounding off money.”

And even if the autonomous passenger carrying future doesn’t come to pass, as we are pretty it won’t, the technologies developed for PAV will almost certainly come in handy with a number of other, more commercially viable business models, like carrying screen protectors and laundry soap from a nearby Amazon warehouse to your front stoop.


The benefit to little airplane pilots like us is that Boeing and others are unintentionally designing the future of small airplanes. Just think about it: a small craft capable of traveling 100 miles at 150 mph while carrying you and your loved one and a couple of Amazon-purchased travel bags and that runs on a few dollars worth of plug time. Yeah, sounds tempting to me, too. It’s less fun and more dystopian when you figure it’ll most likely do this on its own. PAV, in fact, has no controls, and the “person” seen in the video is a dummy. After all, who needs actual pilots when Boeing already knows the best way for you to get from Point A to Point B, kind of like Amazon knows what brand of dog treats you’re currently running low on.

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