THE EHANG 184 IS certainly a sight to behold.
At first glance it looks like someone simply made an enormous drone – and that’s essentially what it is – and then slapped a cockpit large enough for someone to ride in on top of the chassis. And to top it all off, there are some stylish gull-wing doors that give it an undeniably cool-yet-crazy look.
Unveiled at this year’s Consumer Electronic Show, the 184 is the world’s first fully autonomous electric aerial vehicle, designed to fly a passenger around short distances at a low altitude (think more like a helicopter than a plane) without the need for you to man the controls.
Like its smaller drone counterparts, the 184 uses eight large propellers mounted atop four arms to fly around and hover, though an EHang spokesperson said it’s technically able to land using only one propeller arm if need be. I’m not quite sure how the physics and balancing of that add up, but the company is sticking to that claim.
All aspects of the flight are handled by a tablet in the vehicle’s cockpit, allowing the passenger to select their destination and sit back while the 184 handles the takeoff, journey, and landing process.
Right now, the weight limit is 220 pounds, and there’s a small boot that can fit a backpack or travel bag. There is also air conditioning in the cabin.
The aircraft stands about five feet tall, weighs 440 pounds, and has a battery life that lasts long enough for a 23-minute ride at a speed of just over 99km/h. The 184 takes off and lands vertically, similar to a helicopter. Recharging takes two hours for a fast charge and four hours for a trickle charge.
EHang says it has conducted 100 manned test flights with its current prototype, and says its current design is closer to a finalised production model than a concept.
The four propeller arms can fold upwards for storage, and EHang says the 184 folded up takes up approximately the space of a traditional parking spot.
The first question I had was what would happen if the flight control tablet crashed or some technical issue arose mid-flight. An EHang spokesperson assured me that there’s multiple failsafes in place to take over if there’s a specific failure, and there’s also a flight control center that monitors all of the vehicles in the sky and can intervene if necessary, similar to the flight control centers at airports.
If an obstacle such as a bird is noticed mid-flight, passengers also have the option to tap the screen to enter into a stationary “hover” mode, which can also be used for some sightseeing.
All of this would seemingly depend upon maintaining a connection to flight control, however, and I’m still not sure what would happen if the tablet or vehicle’s cellular connection was spotty or simply dropped altogether.
Even more worrisome is that unlike self-driving cars that allow for a manual override using physical controls, the 184 is only able to be controlled via the tablet within the cockpit – there weren’t any physical controls such as a steering wheel or joystick to be found.
This feels potentially problematic, but EHang assured me that its 24-7 flight control center was fully capable of intervening in the case of an emergency.
In spite of lingering questions regarding the safety of its control scheme, EHang is marketing this as a safety-first vehicle that’s designed to eliminate the need to ride in dangerous aerial vehicles such as helicopters or small planes.
As self-driving cars could potentially drive down the rate of vehicle-related deaths due to human error, EHang hopes to do the same for personal aerial transportation. It’s a good idea and noble goal, but one that also brings up a lot of questions when you think up worst-case scenarios.
In theory, the autonomous aspect of the 184 means that passengers wouldn’t need a special license to ride in it, but EHang recognises that it’s in “uncharted waters” at this point, and it could still face regulatory hurdles once it’s closer to market.
The 184 feels like a vehicle that is ten years ahead of its time, but it’s certainly an intriguing prototype, and its design is striking. With no firm price tag or launch date – EHang representatives mentioned it would cost “hundreds of thousands” – it sounds like you won’t be able to buy or ride a 184 in the next year.