They may look like something straight out of a science-fiction film, but flying taxis could soon be a common sight in the skies over cities around the world.
Companies hoping to make flying vehicles have “had a tough two years”, admitted The Observer, with the sector “one of the most notable examples of the pandemic-era financial bubble… as investors sought an aerial Tesla, capable of flying passengers with zero carbon emissions for the first time”.
But now a series of prototypes being granted regulatory approval means flying cars are one step closer to lift off.
‘Quieter, cheaper and emission-free aircraft’
Technically known as eVTOL aircraft, standing for “electric vertical take-off and landing”, dozens of companies around the world have been in a race to develop a “quieter, cheaper and emission-free aircraft, that can land right in the heart of cities”, said the BBC’s technology of business editor Ben Morris.
Designs range from quadcopter drones – similar to those used for filming – scaled up to fit two people, to the likes of Boeing’s Wisk, which combines wings with different combinations of propellers that produce their own lift, cutting energy usage and allowing for ranges over 60 miles.
These differences are “in part a reflection of different hopes for what eVTOLs will actually be for”, said The Observer. Most companies hope to replace helicopters, which are loud, expensive and polluting, while longer-range versions could provide a market for city-to-city travel.
One common trait all these have is that they are designed to be cheap and easy enough to use to eventually rival road taxis. The electric-powered vehicles are also being touted as a green solution to urban transport.
‘Power, not ambition, could be the issue’
In June, the US Federal Aviation Administration gave California-based Joby Aviation the green light to start flight testing its new production prototype. The company has been building and flying pre-production prototypes since 2017, “but this time around is significant,” said NPR, “because it is the first of its factory-built vehicles to be approved for test flights”.
Joby aims to begin commercial passenger operations in the US in 2025, Bloomberg reported, and has partnered with Delta Air Lines to deliver a “transformational, sustainable home-to-airport transportation service” for fliers, set to roll out first in New York and Los Angeles. Joby founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt told The Washington Post in 2021 the company hopes to begin services at an average price of around $3 per mile – comparable to a taxi or Uber – and eventually move to below $1 per mile.
But Joby and other companies face three main challenges beyond achieving lift-off. Amid fierce competition from established aviation and automobile giants as well as new upstart firms, companies will need to show there is a market for flying vehicles.
Key to this will be securing flight paths and landing spots right in the heart of some of the world’s most populous cities.
But batteries “remain the biggest problem”, said the BBC. “They remain heavy and expensive, which curtails the range and limits the cost advantages of EVTOL aircraft, over helicopters, trains and cars.”
Power, not ambition, could end up being the deciding factor in whether flying vehicles really take off.