Air taxis: fantasized flight or realistic promise about to take off?

Flying cars were the next big thing for decades, aerial buses in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis to the battered police cruisers from Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi movie blade runner. But over the past year, they’ve come one giant leap closer with a slew of start-ups more than doubling from the previous decade on the promise of making “urban air mobility” a reality.

Last Monday, Boeing committed an additional $450 million to Wisk, a joint venture developing self-driving taxis, as the incumbents, which also include Airbus and Embraer, further up the stakes in the race against hundreds of start-ups to take over. foot in an expected market. will be worth $1.5 billion a year by 2040, according to Morgan Stanley.

Investors have bought into the dream, pouring more than $7 billion into such projects, mostly through special purpose acquisition vehicles (Spacs) listed on US stock exchanges, McKinsey said. While all sorts of vehicles are planned, from cargo planes to surveillance drones, almost 75% of the money has gone to companies developing electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles.

Much of the exuberance of the past year has now evaporated. The shares of many start-ups listed in 2021 have fallen by more than 50%. Volocopter, the German developer of eVTOL, abandoned early plans to merge with a Spac late last year, in part due to changing market conditions.

Some experts fear the fledgling industry could make it on its skis, much like the 2015-2018 period for self-driving cars when several companies announced broken promises to have tens of thousands of robotaxis on the road. 2020.

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The entrepreneurs behind Joby Aviation, Archer Aviation, Lilium and Britain’s Vertical Aerospace are aiming for large-scale deployment of their flying taxis between 2023 and 2025. Several, including Joby, have already conducted flight test programs. But big challenges still need to be addressed, such as certification by aviation regulators, ground infrastructure development and public acceptance.

“When you’re moving fast and breaking things, safety gets pushed aside – that doesn’t apply well to aerospace,” said Marc Ausman, an aviation veteran and chief executive of Airflow. .aero, which builds an electric plane designed for the middle mile. routes. “You can’t just come in, disrupt the industry and then apologize to regulators later. You have to follow the process.

The Spac marketplace has brought an “incredible amount of exposure to this space,” said Gary Gysin, chief executive of Wisk. “It’s a whole new market, a whole new technology. . . no one has been certified yet. Things will change. . . There will be very few people who will survive this journey to produce something safe. »

Balkiz Sarihan, head of strategy for urban air mobility at Airbus, who is working on its CityAirbus Next Gen vehicle, strikes an equally cautious tone. “There’s a lot of excitement and interest in the industry, but at the end of the day, we’re building an aerospace product that will carry passengers, so it’s not a race from our perspective.”

A whole new industry

Proponents believe the fledgling industry offers a real sea change in aviation and transportation that could eventually help solve problems such as urban congestion. LEK Consulting estimates that the “advanced air mobility” industry could account for 50% of taxi or carpool trips over 15 km by 2040.

A flying taxi developed by Joby Aviation stands in front of the New York Stock Exchange during the company's IPO last year
A flying taxi developed by Joby Aviation stands in front of the New York Stock Exchange during the company’s IPO last year © Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

“It can eventually solve problems for cities, for authorities, for governments and for the environment,” predicted Lukasz Gadowski, who leads tech investor Team Global, which has backed five start-ups including Volocopter and Chinese AutoFlight. “If the most efficient way to care for people is in cities and the growth of cities is limited by public sector infrastructure, [then] it’s not a cure-all, but it’s one of the tools to mitigate it.

Marc Lore, an entrepreneur who sold his start-up Jet.com to Walmart for $3 billion, is personally investing a small fortune in Archer. He pushed back against the idea that certification would be an impossible hurdle to clear in just a few years, arguing that some eVTOLs are essentially just electric helicopters.

“There are already regulations in place to be able to fly helicopters from helipad to helipad,” he said. “And one way of thinking about eVTOLs is to democratize access to helicopters for the masses – but safer, cheaper, more environmentally friendly and with less noise.”

Michael Spellacy, chief executive of Atlas Crest, the company that merged with Archer, is adamant the startup’s timeline isn’t aggressive. “The timelines are realistic and clear because the FAA [US regulator the Federal Aviation Administration] wants this to happen. United Airlines, which has placed a $1 billion order for future Archer jets, wants to make it happen. You currently have a commercially viable technology. It’s not about dreaming about the future.

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Even less enthusiastic proponents agree that aviation is on the verge of the biggest revolution since the transition to jets in the 1940s. Advances in battery technology and materials hold out the promise of a cleaner and more sustainable flight, from electric air taxis to hydrogen planes.

Too early to pick winners

Many companies looking to launch eVTOLs have been working on the technology for well over a decade or more. Industry experts say it’s still too early to pick the winners from more than 600 designs, given the different technologies tested. While some have focused on helicopter-like vehicles, others are developing ones with fixed wings and tilting rotor fans.

Companies’ goals for their vehicles also vary. While some focus on customer-focused electric vehicles that will travel short distances in and around cities, others target regional travel.

The end goal of Kittyhawk, a Mountain View-based startup owned by Google co-founder Larry Page, who is also an investor in Wisk, is to build fully autonomous aircraft for single occupants.

“Seventy-five percent of aviation accidents are caused by human error,” said Sebastian Thrun, Google’s former self-driving car project manager, who runs Kittyhawk. “And by eliminating the human part of the loop, we’ll end up making aviation safer, not just more economical.”

Certification by aviation safety regulators is often cited as one of the biggest challenges. The European Aviation Safety Agency has held talks with several companies and has previously said it expects the first commercial manned air taxi operations to be in place in 2024-25.

Airports are also already working with regulators and manufacturers to explore redesigning regional airspace to safely accommodate low-flying taxis. But experts warn there will be limits to any adoption and no one has so far tested levels of public acceptance.

A flying police car in
A flying police car in ‘Blade Runner’, the 1982 science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott © Warner Bros./Allstar Picture Library Ltd./Alamy

Common standards will also have to be introduced. Andreas Perotti, marketing director of Chinese air taxi start-up EHang in Europe, believes the industry will need to work together to set common standards. “No one is going to build a vertiport for just one vehicle or just one category. It has to be agnostic to some extent when it comes to things like weight, space available. EHang hopes that one of its air taxis will obtain a type certificate from the Civil Aviation Administration of China as early as this year.

Build a business

Even once companies achieve certification, the ultimate challenge will be to build a sustainable supply chain that enables large-scale manufacturing that generates revenue.

Stephan Baur, director of the industrial products and services team at Roland Berger, the consultancy, said he expects companies to start generating their first revenues “around the middle of this decade” when that the groups begin to launch commercial operations.

Florian Reuter, managing director of Volocopter, however, is in no hurry to go public. “Once we receive type certification and launch the first trade routes over the next two to three years, a steady IPO [initial public offering] may become the preferred option.

After last year’s hype, executives know the challenge for the industry now is to prove it can deliver. “Aerospace innovation is just longer and more expensive than most people realize, and applying a technology mindset to aerospace — well, that really doesn’t sync together very well,” Ausman said of Airflow.

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