Flying cars, also known as air taxis, became a dream for a long time. If you’ve seen sci-fi blockbusters like The Jetsons or Back to the Future, you might suddenly want to get out of a traffic jam by flying to work.
Now that companies such as Toyota, Uber, Hyundai, Airbus and Boeing have promised to fly cars to carry people, the dream seems to be taking true. Their goal is to connect the city center with the suburbs by air taxis, cruising at 180 miles per hour at an altitude of 1,000-2,000 feet.
Over the next decade, the market is likely to continue to mature and then flourish globally.
According to a Morgan Stanley study, the market for self-driving urban aircraft could be worth $1.5 trillion by 2040.
Another study by Frost and Sullivan for Urban Air Traffic (UAM) found that air taxis will start operating in Dubai in 2022 and expand at a compound annual growth rate of 46%, with more than 430,000 air taxis in service by 2040.
This trend is driven by a range of products including drones, autonomous driving, and more efficient batteries and advanced manufacturing technologies.
From VC-backed start-ups to Uber to big cars and airlines, it’s no surprise that companies are eager to gain a foothold in this emerging market, given the potential to dramatically disrupt the existing urban transport landscape, and investors are investing heavily in commercialization. What appeals to them is that electric air taxis have the potential to significantly reduce operating and maintenance costs.
Electric air taxis come in a variety of shapes and sizes and look very different from traditional fixed-wing aircraft. Electric engines replace jet engines, and vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft are designed to avoid the need for long runways, and in some cases rotors replace propellers. Only a few companies produce cars that look like winged cars.
In January, Toyota said it would invest $394m in Silicon Valley-based Joby Aviation.
Joby Aviation is developing an all-electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. In fact, the financing is part of Joby’s new $590 million financing for the electric air taxi service that Joby will launch by 2023, while also giving Joby toyota support in manufacturing, quality and cost control.
Joby is currently building a prototype, which Joby says will eventually close to the cost of ground transportation and help 1 billion people save more than an hour of commuting time a day.
“Through thoughtful design, Joby has developed advanced technology and integrated it into an amazing aircraft, which is the key to our successful entry to market and commercial success. Joby spokesman Mojgan Khalili said, “Joby’s in-flight can accommodate four passengers and one pilot. It can fly more than 150 miles on a single charge, 100 times quieter than a conventional aircraft during take-off and landing, and almost silent during flight. “
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, South Korean carmakers Hyundai and Uber also showed off a model of a large flying taxi offering Uber’s in-flight service.
The electric-powered “private air vehicle” will be able to carry four passengers and fly 60 miles per hour at 180 miles per hour. Hyundai says the all-electric car can be recharged in minutes, but it doesn’t elaborate on how it will be charged.
Uber said it hopes to start testing vertical take-off and landing vehicles in 2020 and launch its first official service in three years’ time, in Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne. The goal is to make flying taxis cheaper than owning passenger cars. Uber plans to start demonstration flights this year.
“We believe that Hyundai has the potential to build Uber’s air vehicles at a speed not seen before in the aviation industry, producing high-quality, reliable aircraft at high production to reduce passenger costs per trip,” Eric Allison, Uber’s head of Elevate, said in a press release. “Combining modern manufacturing capabilities with Uber’s technology platform is a huge leap forward in launching a dynamic network of air taxis in the coming years. “
Toyota, Joby, Uber and Hyundai are competing in a highly competitive field.
Boeing, another partner in Uber’s Elevate project, has also begun testing prototype air taxis for flight. Last year, German start-up Lilium Aviation completed its first phase of testing after testing a remote-controlled jet-powered eVTOL prototype for the first time. Volocopter, based in Stuttgart and backed by Intel, Daimler and Geely, has conducted more than 1,000 test flights and plans to make fully autonomous commercial flights within five to 10 years.
Airflow before take-off
“Air taxis are definitely the next stage in mobile traffic,” said Joe Praveen Vijayakumar, senior industry analyst at Frost and Sullivan. “
“City centres around the world are struggling to cope with the growing number of vehicles and the resulting congestion, especially during rush hour. When air taxis are widely commercialized, they will certainly ease the traffic burden on urban roads. They will introduce a flexible mode of urban transport to transport passengers by the shortest possible route between the two locations. “
But the development of air cars also faces many obstacles.
The death of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash has also highlighted the safety of flying taxis. Early flight taxi services may have been staffed with human drivers and eventually replaced by remote-controlled or artificial-intelligence-driven autonomous driving, but regulators around the world have been working to create standard and virtual sandboxes for air taxis before the commercialwave, where developers can experiment. In addition to the risk to passengers and ground personnel, air taxis may also pose a risk to other aircraft.
They could also be targeted by hackers. Regulations currently in place will cover everything from vehicle safety, airworthiness and traffic control to noise pollution, carrier certification and software safety.
“Everyone in the aviation industry thinks safety is safe and technology solves everything, but we know that’s not the case. Dominic Perry, an aviation journalist and deputy editor-in-chief of Flight International, said: “In the race to build aircraft, few companies have fully considered the infrastructure needed to operate them. Or first consider the industrialization and resources needed to build these aircraft. “
Even if security is guaranteed, cost is a huge challenge.
Rajeev Lalwani, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, speculated that the market could be “a super-niche complement to existing transport infrastructure, similar to the way helicopters operate today”. “
Private helicopter travel has been around for a long time, but it hasn’t gone beyond the reach of wealthy passengers, so it’s no surprise that Boeing and Porsche have teamed up to explore the “high-end urban air traffic market.”
The question is whether automation can reduce costs? Remo Gerber, Lilim’s chief commercial officer, told CNBC that a six-minute flight from Manhattan to JFK costs $70; it’s much cheaper than Uber’s air trip, the same trip. Uber costs about $200 to $225.
Dominic Perry, aviation journalist and deputy editor of Flight International, added: “If the pricing is right, in cities where there is no other public transport option, or in cities with very large congestion and urban areas, Air taxis can democratize travel. “
“However, if they are just another ‘helicopter service’ for the rich, all they can do is change the mobility of the rich and widen the gap between the rich and the poor.” “Will they ease the congestion on the ground?” Almost certainly not. “
It is too early to pick the winner of the air taxi circuit, and there are a number of key factors in addition to regulations, safety and costs.
One is the ability of companies to work with different companies in different industries, such as aviation, automotive, telecommunications, software, cybersecurity and real estate, and the ability to work with governments to ensure that regulations support commercial air taxi services are passed.
Joe Praveen Vijayakumar, senior industry analyst at Frost and Sullivan, said: “As for which brands will have an advantage, there is no doubt that airlines that have entered the market, including Boeing and Airbus, Bell, etc., will certainly have an advantage, because they already have space technology. He was referring to the long history of their manufacturers using aircraft and helicopters.
“In UAM’s start-ups, Volocopter, Kitty Hawk, Lilium and Joby Aviation are expected to commercialize. “
Dominic Perry believes that many players will struggle to meet the huge development costs of air transport, but also face closure. Daniel Wigder, the founder and chief executive of Lilium, believes that “millions of dollars” need to be invested and will be hopeful of a “knight in white” such as Boeing or Airbus.
He added: “There seems to be a lot of companies from the technology industry being drawn to this area, and their attitudes are challenging tradition. While this may be healthy, as all industries need to be restructured from time to time, there are many rules and regulations in the aerospace sector, and there are good reasons for that. “
“I suspect that many Silicon Valley-type companies will at some point seek to sell their shares because their intellectual property is valuable to them. “