German startups Lilium and Volocopter have announced that they are planning to inaugurate a flying taxi service in 2024. For their part, Hyundai and General Motors assure that they are in a position to launch an air cab service before 2025. Other car brands, such as Toyota, Daimler or China’s Geely are racing not to be left behind.
Flying cars for passengers, unmanned cargo, or urgent delivery of medical supplies are being presented at international shows or fairs, showing that the technology – vertical electric take off and landing vehicles (eVTOL) – is ready.
The European Union’s Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has already started the certification process for some of the projects, estimating that the first flying cabs may start operating in 2024. This is also the timetable that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration expects for the first operations of urban air mobility vehicles. In Europe, EASA estimates that this market will be worth €4.2 billion, and the EU could centralize 31% of global production and create some 90,000 jobs by 2030.
In 2019, Hyundai created a division exclusively for air mobility, led by former NASA engineer Jaiwon Shin. Its battery electric-powered air cabs are designed for five to six passengers, but the South Korean brand also hopes to carry commercial cargo. Believing it can develop an ecosystem of services around flying vehicles, the company announced last year a partnership with Uber. Together they launched a model unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Embraer believes in the concept and has already gone into heavy production. The São Paulo-based commercial aircraft manufacturer received an order in early June to deliver two hundred eVTOL vehicles by 2026 to Halo, a company that provides airline services in the US and UK. On the Embraer side, the deal was closed by Eve, a spin-off of the Brazilian company created to develop the flying car that wants to become the world leader in the urban air mobility industry. The competition, however, is tight.
Britain’s Virgin Atlantic has teamed up with Bristol-based Vertical Aerospace to introduce the VA-X4 craft this year. Quieter than a helicopter, the 15-meter aircraft will carry four passengers and a pilot at 160 km/hour to and from predetermined locations, such as from the top of a building in Cambridge to London’s Heathrow airport. Vertical Aerospace is conducting test flights throughout this year, and has already established partnerships with American Airlines and the aircraft leasing company, Avolon, with which it hopes to inaugurate the service.
In late June, Germany’s Volocopter conducted the first flight of its air cab at Bourget airport in France. The 500-meter show in three minutes was specially prepared for the Paris Air Forum, but it also served to confirm the company’s plan to have the first operational service ready for the Paris 2024 Olympics. The aircraft, with some similarities to a small helicopter, has capacity for two passengers, plus luggage, and is part of a broader package of services that the company wants to start providing in the French capital region.
Volocopter is already well advanced in the certification process with EASA, being to date the only one with Design Organization Approval (DOA) from the European agency. Its strategy involves creating an ecosystem with several mobility solutions integrated into the VoloIQ digital platform – the VoloCity (connections within the city), VoloConnect (city-suburb connections), VoloDrone (cargo drone), and VoloPorts (take-off and landing sites).
Kelekona’s eVTOL is built in the shape of a teardrop and with two wings on its back. It can carry up to 40 passengers or, alternatively, almost five thousand kilograms of cargo. It is therefore most apt to describe it as a flying bus. The American startup assures on its website that the device is prepared for trips of up to 530 kilometers, and can make trips between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just one hour. The vehicles are powered by large electric batteries, which will have to be replaced upon arrival of each trip to return to the starting point.
Tests by regulators still need to be conducted. They are meant to guarantee that the technology meets safety standards, certification, or local regulations against excessive noise. Experts warn that competitive routes and services, as well as the supply chain for spare parts will need to be created.
Zero-emission electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft for passengers and cargo are being developed by numerous startups, aircraft manufacturers or car brands, but there is still a considerable way to go before they can achieve profitable performances, analysts warn.
The European Aviation Safety Agency is currently focusing on projects for piloted vehicles for passengers and drones for cargo deliveries. Fully autonomous flying cabs with people are thus still a few years away.