Taxi! At the airport – by plane, please.
This article is part of our Future of Transportation series, which explores the innovations and challenges that affect the way we move around the world.
It’s late afternoon in Manhattan and you have a flight to catch from Kennedy International Airport. Instead of sitting for two hours in rush hour traffic, you make a short trip to a nearby parking lot where you board an electric plane that takes off vertically from the roof and drops you off at Kennedy for 20 minutes later for about the same cost as a fancy carpool. You make your flight on time.
While this scenario may seem far-fetched, several companies say they are on the verge of being able to offer safe, inexpensive, and clean electric planes that can help passengers fly distances between two and 150 miles without having to need a conventional track. Public and private experts believe the technology could become a massive market that would help reduce congestion and change the way people move around major metropolitan areas.
While urban air travel is currently out of reach for most customers (think Uber Copter), improvements in battery technology have lowered the cost of developing viable electric aircraft for urban passenger transport. These companies are betting they can bring electric urban and regional air travel to the masses and have developed new aircraft to compete for a share of this emerging market over the next few years.
“We want to create something that is available to a lot of people, that can do the job of a high speed train without requiring the infrastructure,” said Daniel Wiegand, CEO and founder of Lilium, based in Germany. “We won’t be at the cost of a high-speed train ticket in Germany on day one, but if we don’t make it within 15 years, I would consider our mission a failure.”
Manufacturers claim that these electric planes have many advantages over conventional planes and especially helicopters, which are expensive to maintain and fly, noisy and carry safety risks, as evidenced by the crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight other passengers.
The new electric aircraft uses one fifth of the energy of conventional helicopters. Unlike traditional fixed-wing aircraft, they won’t need runways to take off and land. Unlike helicopters, they will be largely inaudible from the ground and will have multiple rotors and backup systems, which will make them much safer.
Adam Goldstein, co-managing director of Archer Aviation, said his company hopes to offer rates in the range of three to four dollars per mile flown. That would make the trip from Manhattan to Kennedy, typically 17 miles, between $ 50 and $ 80. Several experts have predicted that the price of regional flights will be about the same as the Uber Black luxury car service.
“The biggest cost is for batteries,” said Goldstein, which are “expensive, but getting cheaper every day”. (He declined to be more specific on the battery supply and cost.)
Several companies, including Lilium and Archer, have stood out in a crowded field for their technology and ability to raise capital. None of them are content to simply manufacture vehicles; all seek to both develop aircraft and provide end-to-end service, combining the traditional roles of aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and airlines like Delta.
Several experts have credited Tesla and other automakers who have entered the electricity market for lowering the cost of batteries. Traditional manufacturers like Hyundai are also increasing their investments in electric planes, with the hope of putting an aircraft into service in 2028.
The most established players in this field, such as Joby Aviation and Volocopter, promise to have aircraft in service by 2024, an ambitious target that will largely depend on obtaining regulatory approval.
The most important area of investment is electric vehicles that take off and land vertically, such as helicopters or Harrier jets. Known as the electric vertical take-off and landing or eVTOL, these planes can typically accommodate between two and 10 passengers and can fly up to 200 miles, making them ideally suited for traversing a metropolitan area or connecting two cities.
Mr Wiegand of Lilium had a light bulb moment in 2014 when he watched a video of a military plane taking off vertically and realized that an electric version could solve all the traditional problems associated with the using airplanes in dense urban areas: eliminating noise and air pollution. , as well as the need for leads. Still a student at the Technical University of Munich at the time, Mr. Wiegand assembled a team and began to develop the engine that powers his company’s seven-seater electric jet today.
He believes his company’s jet technology is evolving better than propeller-based designs, and argued that the additional capacity would help keep costs down to a level affordable for middle-class consumers.
Taking a different approach, Volocopter, founded in 2011 and based in Munich; it currently has two vehicles in advanced development including a “multicopter”, a helicopter with 18 rotor blades, called VoloCity. The two-seater aircraft has a range of 22 miles, which according to Florian Reuter, the managing director, makes it easier to certify than some electric aircraft with longer range, and perfectly suited for urban travel, where the vast majority of trips are 10 to 20. miles. Volocopter is also developing a four-seater aircraft with a range of 100 miles intended more for regional travel.
“We are one of the few companies to recognize that there are different missions and different types of vehicles for different missions,” said Mr. Reuter.
Volocopter is seeking regulatory approval from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and hopes its planes will be operational by 2024.
Joby, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., Pursues a similar goal using an alternate approach, having completed more than 1,000 test flights on his all-electric aircraft, which seats four passengers plus the pilot and has a range of 150 miles on a single charge. . The company made headlines last December when rideshare giant Uber offloaded Elevate, its urban rideshare product, to Joby and invested an additional $ 75 million in the company, signaling that the two services would be closely linked.
Cities are already preparing for the introduction of electric planes into their already overloaded transportation systems. Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles created Urban Movement Labs in 2019; today, the organization is focused on preparing for FAA certification of electric aircraft for public use by 2025.
The FAA declined several interview requests, but said it reviews electric planes on a case-by-case basis.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said his city is embracing eVTOL as a cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional modes of transportation like buses and streetcars, which are expensive to build and rely on older technology. He said the city was considering parking lots, rooftops and other potential take-off and landing sites.
“We believe that one of the flaws in planning and financing transport has been retreading the ideas of yesterday,” he said in an interview. “The sky obviously has multiple dimensions and gives you the opportunity to be creative.”
Mr Suarez added that he had pushed Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg to embrace urban air mobility rather than focusing on old modes of transport.
Sam Morrissey, executive director of Urban Movement Labs, said the aircraft would initially be restricted to existing commercial airports and flight paths until authorities are able to determine how the new locations for take-offs and landings can be added without disrupting other modes of transportation. (Joby and Archer both began certification under the rules for existing fixed-wing aircraft.)
“Our challenge is that if they happen, can we put everything in place so that it is not something that only the rich can use,” Mr Morrissey said.