Flying taxis might be the next impossible promise from Silicon Valley
The industry has been on the verge for a while now. It's got to deliver soon.
Although snubbed by the Oscars, the recent film Uncut Gems makes a bold prediction about the future of urban travel. Late in the story, Adam Sandler’s character Howard Ratner instructs his mistress, Julia, to fly from New York to Connecticut in order to place a bet at a casino. There’s no need for an airport. He simply pulls out his phone and orders her a Blade, which has been operating in real life since 2015, and the chopper is hers.
It’s a scene that Toyota hopes it will be able to replicate soon.
The Japanese multinational, best known for its hybrid-electric cars, has just announced that it will partner with Joby Aviation, a California-based startup, to “share expertise in manufacturing, quality and cost controls for the development and production of Joby Aviation’s breakthrough eVTOL (electric vertical take off and landing) aircraft, according to a press statement. Along with that shared expertise, Toyota will be investing $394 million in the company, which was founded over a decade ago in 2009.
“Our four-passenger aircraft takes off and lands vertically like a helicopter, then smoothly transitions to forward flight,” Joby says on its website. “Its all-electric powertrain allows for near silent cruise, while accelerating the shift to sustainable transportation.” The company offers impressive stats as well: 200 MPH, a flight range of 150 miles on a single charge, 100 times quieter than a typical airplane, and zero carbon emissions.
Toyota’s investment cements the air taxi boom, and it isn’t the only company betting big on Joby’s as-yet unnamed aircraft. In late 2019, Joby signed an “aerial ridesharing partnership” agreement with Uber. It all sounds very impressive until you remember that Joby’s plane has not flown at all.
The company has its sights set on 2023 for operations to begin. The pressure is not just on Joby, but also on Uber, Hyundai, Airbus, Volocopter, Terrfugia, Kitty Hawk, and others to actually produce something that works and is useful.
“The question is can we build a platform that is broadly accessible to everybody and is not just a rich person’s toy, and can we build it so quiet that people on the ground aren’t annoyed by it?” Sebastian Thrun, the chief executive of Kitty Hawk, recently told the New York Times. The jury’s still out.
The race to the skies calls to mind one on the ground: self-driving cars.
Some of the exact same companies listed above, and others closely related, just spent a decade predicting that cars would be driving themselves. Kitty Hawk has gotten investments from Google co-founder Larry Page. Google’s other co-founder, Sergey Brin, predicted in 2012 that self-driving cars were five years away. Elon Musk thought self-driving cars were two years away in 2016, and a number of top executives in the car industry thought he wasn’t that far off.
The similarities between the race for self-driving cars and eVTOLs are obvious to anyone who is paying attention. Both concepts offer refuge from a frustrating reality for millions: having to drive through traffic on the way to work. They both require cutting edge technology where one mistake could kill people. And because of that, they both face a thicket of government regulators.
Some governments, like the United Arab Emirates, have proven friendlier to eVTOL technology than the United States. While police aren’t flying around New York or Baltimore in hoverbikes yet, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is optimistic about the chances of eVTOLs becoming reality.
The technical problems facing eVTOLs cannot just be waved away. In a recent study called “Change is in the air,” Deloitte highlighted “propulsion, situational-awareness systems, and advanced detection and collision-avoidance systems” as problem areas across the industry. “It will likely take a group effort to eliminate the remaining technological barriers to urban air mobility,” the professional services company concludes.
“Probably the biggest question I get on this is, ‘Is this real, are they really happening?’ Yes, this is more than just hype,” said Jay Merkle, executive director of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration program at a recent meeting of the Transportation Research Board, according to Smart Cities Dive. “This is more than just promotional videos.” Merkle went on to say that six unnamed fliers are “well along” in earning certification from the FAA.
But it’s not just the feds. Any company wanting to do business in America will also have to deal with state and local interests, many of whom might be suspicious of tech startups. The battles between cities and ridesharing companies are well-documented, it’s easy to imagine one poor interaction being an eVTOL and a local populace going viral and earning heaps of negative publicity.
These companies “haven’t operated in a place like New York City, where you have three airports overlaying each other,” Itai Shoshani, CEO and chief pilot for New York helicopter charter Zip Aviation told Aviation Today in 2018. Metro areas like Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle all have three or more airports. “They haven’t dealt with the issues [charter helicopter companies] have. It’s not like an airline; you’re not going to have people just line up and stand and get tickets.”
And then, there’s the same problem that has haunted self-driving cars: trust. Deloitte highlighted this problem as well. After taking a global survey of consumers, Deloitte found that “80 percent of the total respondents either believe that these vehicles “will not be safe” or are currently uncertain that they will be safe.”
So there are immense technical challenges, some of which are being overcome with hundreds of millions of dollars and years of work. Beyond those challenges lie regulators, which will likely cause some difficulties. And then there’s the question if anyone wants one in the first place.
Self-driving technology has certainly seen some success in Tesla, Waymo, and others.And eVTOL technology will undoubtedly develop. ““This collaboration with Toyota represents an unprecedented commitment of money and resources for us, and for this new industry, from one of the world’s leading automakers,” Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt said in his company’s press statement.
Bevirt goes on to say that he is “excited to harness Toyota’s engineering and manufacturing prowess to drive us toward our dream of helping a billion people save an hour+ commuting time every day,” which is undoubtedly true. But at a certain point, dreams have to become reality.
If the industry misses its deadlines, it risks becoming something not quite vaporware but not quite real to the everyday consumer.