What’s next for the world of startups and transportation? Turns out, it could be commonplace flying taxi services.
A German company called Lilium was started about five years ago in Munich, and now it’s coming to the US. They’ll be building a 56,000 square foot transportation hub in Orlando, Florida, to launch their electric five seater aircraft and fly passengers on regional trips by 2025. The port will cost about $25 million to construct. The city of Orlando itself is backing Lilium’s project, and 20 million Floridians would be within its range, connecting the region like never before.
This jet isn’t like the typical aircraft of today. Electric aircraft are just getting off the ground right now, and Lilium has one of the top models: an egg-shaped cabin connected to a pair of wings that have 36 electric jet engines to zoom through the skies at 186mph. Companies like Hyundai and Toyota are partnering with Uber to come up with their own vehicles, and there are over 100 others in the works. In theory, these aircraft will even be safer and cheaper than today’s helicopters.
In China, a company called Ehang that builds drones has created a vehicle large enough to transport human passengers. This particular aircraft doesn’t require a pilot, and an air traffic control center would have to be set up for autonomous flying vehicles specifically. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, there have been trials by a company called Wisk for another all-electric, self-flying vehicle. Airbus is another big name working toward transforming city transportation, with its eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) vehicle taking on the name CityAirbus. These aerial taxis are piloted remotely to take up to 4 passengers up to 60 miles at 75mph, with an average trip time projected to be about 15 minutes. Volocopter is another German company that’s already been accepting reservations for flights in its own electric air taxi, with a commercial launch predicted for 2022. The final certification for air flight services is still pending, but the company has stated that they realistically believe they’ll be launched in the next 2-3 years. These vehicles are a little behind some of their competitors, however, with a flight time of only 30 minutes between charges and a range of 17 miles.
Uber is extremely invested in the business of flying taxi services, and has partnered with huge car manufacturers like Toyota and Hyundai to take over the skies worldwide. Hyundai now has a flying car prototype on display, which they are already hoping to mass-produce. In 2023, Uber wants to launch these taxis in Texas and California. Hyundai’s product requires 5-7 minutes to fully charge and it can cruise at 180 mph with 60 miles between charges. This service would in theory be accompanied by eco-friendly electric cars to take passengers to and from stations on the ground for a truly revolutionary green transportation system.
In California, Toyota has teamed up with Joby Aviation, a company that has been working on an electric aircraft for a decade. Joby Aviation has been able to raise $720 million, and has also recently partnered with Uber. With a top speed of 200 mph and 150 miles on a single charge, this ambitious project believes that it can take over the market with the help of Toyota for manufacturing. Uber will provide air traffic control, landing pad construction, connections to ground transportation, and its rideshare network reconfigured to navigate the skies. On top of these other deals, Uber has also designed its own prototypes that look like a mashup between a drone, a plane, and helicopter. The ridesharing company has already signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA to create an air traffic control system to manage a network of these potentially pilotless vehicles.
There are still many regulatory and technical hurdles to overcome before an air taxi service can become mainstream. Although many of these companies have demoed brief flights of their electric aircraft, any service must be certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration, as well as other regulators around the world depending on where they want to launch. So far, there aren’t any battery-operated commercial aircraft options available anywhere, so getting electric flights into the sky and making them safe for passengers are the main goals. Startups like Lilium have yet to prove their vehicles are completely safe despite having raised $275 million last year from investors. Additionally, today’s batteries simply don’t contain enough energy to get most planes off the ground. Jet fuel is still more efficient, providing about 43 times the amount of energy as a battery that’s just as heavy. With at least 3 years before the earliest launches predicted for consumer use, all of these companies still have some time to work on these glaring issues.
By 2040, the electric flying taxi industry could be worth $1.5 trillion if it continues to mature as predicted this decade. But how much would a ride cost the average consumer? Would the aerial taxi really be able to grow alongside or even replace regular cars on the ground, or would it simply be a method for the ultra-wealthy to bypass traffic? In 2020, a traditional private plane flight for about 1.5 hours will cost you about $2000. That’s pretty steep for the average passenger, so it may be difficult for us to conceptualize such a service becoming available for widespread use.
According to AAA, car ownership costs between $0.464 to $0.608 per mile. As of right now, a ride in a flying taxi is projected to cost about $5.73 per passenger mile, but Uber’s ambitious goal is to make it even cheaper than driving. The cost is projected to go down to $1.86 per passenger mile before ideally getting down to $0.44 per passenger mile. Lilium also wants to make this kind of service available to anyone and everyone. The startup anticipates that a passenger could get from Manhattan to JFK Airport within six minutes for about $70. For reference, a traditional taxi ride for that same trip today will cost you from $52-$56, taking about 45 minutes.
So, will the 2020’s be the decade of the flying taxi? Investors sure seem to think so. It’s a budding industry to keep an eye on, but it will probably be another 5-10 years before the reality of this futuristic dream comes to fruition.