Automaker Involvement Boosts Prospects For Urban Air Taxis
“Closer than you think” is an unofficial mantra of the nascent urban air mobility (UAM) industry, and two events in the first weeks of 2020 underline the progress made in little more than a decade.
On Jan. 6, South Korean carmaker Hyundai unveiled its electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) air taxi concept and a plan to invest $1.5 billion in UAM over the next five years. On Jan. 15, U.S. startup Joby Aviation revealed its production prototype and a $394 million investment by automaker Toyota, which will also provide its manufacturing expertise to the eVTOL developer.
For Uber, which ignited the eVTOL market in 2016 with its vision for the Elevate urban aerial ride-sharing service, the announcements are a major boost. Performance and noise figures from flight tests of Joby’s all-electric aircraft show the vehicle capabilities required to begin limited commercial service in 2023 can be met with available battery technology. And involvement of two of the world’s largest carmakers holds promise that urban air taxi operations can be scaled to large volumes beginning in 2025.
“Three years ago, we presented a crazy white paper here,” Mark Moore, director of aviation for Uber Elevate, told the Vertical Flight Society’s Transformative Vertical Flight conference in San Jose, California, on Jan. 21. “Today, we are right on target, executing exactly what we said in that white paper. Joby’s stunning vehicle shows the capabilities we are after are very real.”
But to ex-NASA eVTOL pioneer Moore, Hyundai’s announcement may have even more significance. It was Google that began developing driverless cars, he points out. A handful of automakers then started working on the technology, and now the entire automotive industry is investing billions of dollars in self-driving vehicles. Within five years, he expects every carmaker to be involved in UAM.
Secretive Joby took an early lead in developing an eVTOL air taxi, using computer modeling and subscale prototypes to investigate dozens of configurations before settling on the S4 design, with its six tilting propellers, in 2014. The guiding principles were safety, low noise and minimum cost per passenger-mile, says founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt.
Joby is the first eVTOL manufacturer to commit to deploying vehicles to meet Uber’s 2023 target for beginning commercial service in pilot cities, and the $594 million Series C investment round led by Toyota will take the company through certification into production and putting initial vehicles into service, says Paul Sciarra, Joby executive chairman, early investor and Pinterest cofounder.
A demonstrator flew in 2012; Joby began flight-testing the S4 in 2017 and applied for FAA certification late in 2018. The 2.1 version now flying (pictured) “is near to the vehicle we want to operate,” says Sciarra. The piloted five-seater has a cruise speed of 200 mph and a range of up to 150 mi. on a single battery charge. “We are not assuming any improvement in cells from what we are using now,” he says.
Joby plans to own and fly the vehicles on behalf of Uber, under its own Part 135 air-taxi operating certificate. “We are working on that already,” says Sciarra. For both safety and customer adoption, the aircraft will be piloted. “It is not yet clear how fully autonomous passenger operations can be certified,” he says. “We wanted to get out as quickly as possible before the rules are fully set.”
Operating the vehicles “will allow us to bearhug the safety early on,” says Sciarra. “We will be able to choose where and when to operate.” The company is planning a production plant in Marina, California, and as the world’s largest carmaker, Toyota will provide expertise in manufacturing, quality and cost control. Joby is already using robotic automated fiber placement to produce composite structures.
With its early market lead and a 150-mi. range, the company is looking at more than just urban trips—suburban, intercity and rural flights are within the vehicle’s capability, says Sciarra. Acoustics are a high priority for community acceptance, particularly if flights move out from noisy city centers. A 60-dB noise level has been demonstrated, “but we need to continue to improve,” says Bevirt.