The sector reportedly dislikes the terms – preferring “battery-powered aircraft” or EVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft – but the public and mass media know the technology as “flying taxis”. Or “flying cars”.
The prospect of flying cars has been capturing scientific, engineering, investor and public interest for a long time now. The BBC’s Tomorrow’s World programme reported on a German flying car model, the Wagner FJ-V3 Aerocar, as far back as 1970 – over 50 years ago.
Despite the company’s confident promotional footage and claims that flying cars were already a reality and would soon be affordable for the average working Joe, we know it didn’t quite work out.
Source: BBC Archive Footage/YouTube
Over 50 years later and despite background chatter and development projects that have come in waves of enthusiastic activity since the early 1970s, flying cars still don’t exist. At least not beyond the prototype stage.
None have been licensed to operate in public airspace, nor the slice of stratosphere between it and street level. No prototype has been commercially produced.
But that is finally on the verge of changing. Recent rapid advances in technology, especially battery technology, has encouraged billions of dollars of new investment into the kind of small, light aircraft designs popularly referred to as flying cars.
“Passenger drones” is arguably a better description for many of the prototypes whose owners believe they are close to commercialisation. But“battery-powered aircraft” or EVTOL probably sound safer.
There are still hurdles to cross – convincing the general public of the safety of such small flying vehicles is one. But if recent reports by the likes of The Economist and Financial Times prove accurate, there will be commercially operational flying EVTOL taxi services within a few short years.
Are we really that close to light electric aircraft taking off and landing vertically in urban spaces becoming a common sight as they ferry passengers through the air above and between, cities?
Who owns the companies hoping to be the first to offer commercial services? What will these services look like and how much will they cost?
And what obstacles still need to be cleared before the future we’ve been seemingly on the cusp of for decades finally becomes the present?
Why 2028 is an important year for flying cars
A recent article in the New York Times declares of flying cars: “now they have a rollout plan and a target arrival date: 2028.”
What is the roadmap between now and 2028? Why is 5 years now seen in some quarters as a realistic timeline to a new mode of common transport to the 3D map?
That’s the timeline set out in a document published by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in early July. In it, the U.S. regulator outlined the steps that it and others need to take for a competitive air taxi market to be operational in at least one location – by 2028.
The FAA publishing a blueprint for a commercial market for flying taxis becoming a reality within five years can be seen as the first big step in the sequence of requirements it outlines. It is the agency that will oversee the certification of the aircraft and will set the rules that pilots and companies must follow.
The FAA is indicating it believes the technology that a commercial flying taxi market is predicated upon, the aircraft themselves, now exists. But to allow the technology to actually be used requires a well-thought-out system for its safe use.
Battery-powered aircraft will be operating directly above densely populated urban areas. If early trials go well, they could be present in significant numbers above the world’s busiest metropolises in just a few short years. The consequences of a mechanical failure, pilot error or mid-air collision do not need to be spelt out.
The FAA would not have published its blueprint if it wasn’t confident a system can be devised that will allow commercial flying taxi services to operate at an acceptable level of risk to the general public below.
But it will also be acutely aware of the need to get that system right. Any early accidents would risk setting the sector back years, wiping out billions in investment capital overnight. The FAA would inevitably be the target of public fury and the fallout monumental.
Public bodies like the FAA don’t usually expose themselves to that level of downside to a big decision going wrong if they are not very confident it will, in fact, go well.
The FAA is seemingly convinced the technology developed by companies in the flying car space is impressive enough that a new commercial mode of transport based on it is both inevitable and desirable. Paul Fontaine, an assistant FAA administrator responsible for the modernisation of the air transportation system is quoted by the New York Times as saying:
“These things will be coming on the scene, and our job is to try and be ahead of the curve.”
The FAA accepts that flying cars, or battery-powered aircraft, are already close enough to fact that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. So their job is now to work with the sector, other administrative bodies and the general public to come up with the system that will balance interests and ensure safety.
What are the bottlenecks to commercial flying taxi services?
The big challenges the flying car sector still needs to overcome for the aircraft technology it has developed to be deployed commercially can be divided into two main categories.
The first is administrative – there has to be a legally recognised and enforced set of rules and regulations developed for a brand-new mode of commercial transportation. Vehicles and pilots will have to be certified as meeting safety standards and those standards and systems – “the rules of the air” – have to be devised and tested.
The second, and perhaps greater, category of challenges will consist of convincing local authorities and residents, any of whom will look at passenger drone services as a risk to public safety. These services may also be viewed as a nuisance in one way or another, even if the makers of eVTOL aircraft stress that they produce relatively low levels of noise.
In acoustic tests carried out by Joby, a U.S. startup that hopes to be among the first to offer commercial flying taxi services, its aircraft registered the equivalent of 45.2 dBA from an altitude of 1,640ft at 115 mph (185 km/h). That’s a level the company asserts “will barely be perceptible against the ambient environment of cities”.
NASA engineers also measured the aircraft’s acoustic profile during take-off and landing to be below 65 dBA, a noise level comparable to normal conversation, at a distance of 330ft (100m ) from the flight path.
Still, opposition is inevitable and the pace at which commercial flying taxi services roll out internationally is likely to be most influenced by legislation and legal battles. Brave regions that opt into pilot projects will prove a testing ground. If things go well, opposition will mellow with time and there will be a tipping point. But it could take up to a decade before the rollout of commercial markets gathers pace.
But who knows, maybe the public will be won over more quickly.
Which companies will be first to the flying taxi market?
China has its own electric aircraft sector and is trying to steal a march on rivals from the U.S. and Europe by pushing ahead with the certification process and limited pilot programmes for eVTOL services.
In the U.S. NYSE-listed Joby Aviation and Archer Aviation are furthest along in that certification process and Nasdaq-listed Lilium, the German startup, is another leading contender.
All three hope to have certified aircraft and start commercial services in 2025, which would put them ahead of the F.A.A.’s 2028 goal. However, to achieve their targets, approval will have to be secured from the federal agency and local officials for specific services and routes.
The sector is also now famous for missing self-imposed deadlines for the launch of commercial services. Uber now infamously claimed in 2017 it would be operating a flying cab service by 2020 – the year its unit working on the project was sold to Joby. Who, at the time, in turn set itself a 2023 deadline.
But who is currently placed at the head of the pack of companies competing to be among the first major players in the imminent flying taxi market?
There are well-funded startups with well-developed light aircraft technology located across the USA, China, Europe and Brazil. The big aerospace companies like Airbus, Boeing and Embraer all also have their own in-house units or investments in independent startups targeting the space.
Boeing, for example, this year became the sole owner of California-based eVTOL startup Wisk Aero.
Inevitably, the race for the flying taxi market is likely to be most influenced by financial firepower. And a number of the leading startups in the space, several of whom are already public companies, have plenty of it.
Earlier this year Archer reached a deal with Stellantis, which owns the Peugeot, Fiat and Chrysler car marques, for a $150 million equity investment by the latter as part of a deal for it to manufacture its aircraft, called Midnight.
Toyota recently invested nearly $400 million in Joby Aviation, making it the company’s largest investor, and Delta Air Lines also invested $60 million. Volocopter has received backing from Daimler and Geely, the Chinese owner of Volvo, while UK-based Vertical Aerospace has attracted investment from Honeywell and American Airline and has pre-orders from American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic.
Archer has a pre-order from United Airlines worth $1 billion and a $10 million deposit in the bank.
Germany’s Lilium, whose technology is different from most of its competitors and uses electric jet engines embedded in four wings, is trying to raise a further $250 million to fund its certification process. Eve Holding, which is controlled by Embraer, has raised $377 million and Wisk, $775 million. The aircraft being developed by Vermont-based Beta Technologies has attracted more than $796 million in investment.
Several of the start-ups, including Joby, Archer and Vertical, have raised money on public markets, listing on US stock markets through special purpose acquisition companies, or Spacs. Joby has raised $2.1 billion so far, the most of any of the startups in the space, followed by Germany’s Lilium, with $1.2 billion.
Not all will succeed in establishing themselves in the long term and the competition for a share of what will start as a limited commercial market will inevitably lead to casualties and sector consolidation.
But before that, a commercial air taxi market has to officially launch.
What’s left to do before we can get an airborne ride home from the airport?
The New York Times sums up the challenges ahead with:
“Air taxi companies will have to compete for scarce real estate, navigate city and state regulations, develop the infrastructure to charge or fuel aircraft, and gain acceptance from residents. They will also have to hire and train pilots, who are in high demand.”
They will also have to be certified by the FAA, which has said it will not compromise safety to accommodate efforts by private companies to launch before its own 2028 deadline – which it sees as realistic.
Even if 2025 comes and goes without the launch of a commercial air taxi market somewhere, the writing does now appear to be on the wall. 2028 seems as good a bet as any.