The reports of the death of the flying taxi are greatly exaggerated
Why early SpaceX investors are making a flying taxi -- with help from Walmart
Will flying taxis ever be a real thing? It’s an industry that has been stuck in “dream mode” for years now, but investors are still betting big on the possibilities.
The latest entrant, Archer Aviation, just left stealth mode with a sizable cash backing.
The company's founders, Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein, recently spoke with Inverse as it leaves stealth mode and prepares to compete for the future.
What is Archer Aviation?
Archer Aviation doesn’t reveal much about itself on its website. It leaves the latitude and longitude for a location in Palo Alto, California as its address, located in a nondescript building near Google’s headquarters and the airport.
The company was founded by Adcock and Goldstein, whose experience lies in hedge-fund financing. The pair used a $100 million sale of Vettery, a recruiting website, to fund Archer. According to eVTOL, a news site focused on the industry, it also has financial backing from Marc Lore, president of Walmart’s eCommerce property. (eVTOL is an acronym for “electric vertical takeoff and landing,” a technical term that can be used to describe any type of plane that doesn’t require a runway, but is colloquially called a flying taxi.)
"Adam and I have been aviation nerds for a long time," Adcock tells Inverse in a joint interview, citing their early investment in SpaceX. Our interview, conducted days after SpaceX's historic crewed launch to the International Space Station, was dotted with praise for that company's founder Elon Musk. Adcock credits Musk with "bringing the magic back" to flight, something the pair want to continue.
They call the problems of traffic and congestion that eVTOL planes hope to solve "hard world" problems, which they define on the company's site as having high capital costs, requiring advanced hardware technologies and long timeline, and an overall very challenging business with low chances of success.
eVTOL notes that there have been over 40 engineers hired so far, and the Archer site notes that it claims employees from around the industry—Wisk, Airbus Vahana, Joby Aviation. While none of these companies have entered the mainstream with their own eVTOL crafts yet, they’ve put in serious work. In February, Wisk signed a contract with the government of New Zealand to begin test flights.
"What we set out to do here," Adcock continues, "is surround ourselves with the best folks in the industry, that have spent a lifetime in aviation. And it's not just aviation, because we look at eVTOLs as an entirely new class of vehicle....Only in the last ten years now, have people been working on this space. So it's largely new for everybody. The folks we have surrounded ourselves with have pioneered this industry."
What will Archer Aviation’s plane look like?
Archer tells Forbes that it plans to build a “winged, piloted aircraft that can carry four passengers 60 miles at speeds of up to 150 mph, with rotors that tilt upward to allow it to take off like a helicopter and swivel forward to fly like an airplane.”
For a somewhat late entry into the market, it’s a conservative approach. Joby, which was founded in 2009, has a similar idea. Looking at their two planned models, neither of which are ready for passengers, the similarities are apparent.
Considering that there are only so many designs a 4-seater flying craft can have, it is perhaps inevitable that some designs will look similar. But Archer hopes to have its vehicle, whose name the company is keeping under wraps for now, stand out on a technical level.
Two aspects where Archer wants to impress are in safety and in sound. Any eVTOL craft that wants to take people out of cities will be moving around residential areas, and the easiest way to get hated in any crowded city is by making too much noise. Having a quiet craft is crucial. Some of the company's biggest hires, like Ben Goldman of Joby, focus on acoustics.
"Acoustics and performance are almost like this knob that can be turned," Adcock says. "Turn it one way, and help with noise. Turn it the other way, noise is worse and performance is better. So you really got to figure out the right way to turn this knob."
"In eVTOL, we have multiple electric rotors. Lots of knobs that can be turned — speed, thickness, a lot of things we can be working on." That knob also includes takeoff and landing. The goal? Be quieter than a helicopter, which at 500 feet gives off a very loud 87 decibels. The team wants to be within the standard noise parameters for a city, between 45-55 decibels, Adcock says.
Adcock is quick to mention that the company is in an "experimental phase" with a demonstrator craft coming in 2021, if all goes according to plan.
Does Archer Aviation have a business model?
The Uber Elevate program wants to launch widespread air transportation between suburbs and cities by 2023. Uber Elevate wants to handle the logistics and leave the hardware to outside companies, and a number are vying for consideration.
While Archer’s plan doesn’t specifically mention Uber Elevate, it strongly suggests it. "A lot of our models that we use to think about pricing come out of two sides: 1) What's the direct operating cost for the company? and 2) what is the customer's willingness to pay? So the goal is to get the pricing around Uber-type prices, maybe a little higher when we launch, and then considerably down from there.
The way that can be done is through a networked business, a rideshare, where you need a very high customer utilization. So if the demand is there, you can spread those costs over many flights. Our goal is for this to be a mass market product. So if you wanted to fly from Manhattan to JFK, it would be normally be around $70, $80. But the goal is to do that in about seven minutes, as opposed to ninety. That would be quite an upgrade to your life."
This is a model very similar to Uber Pool or Lyft Shared Rides, offering prices that are too good to be true in hopes that people will take advantage of the deals and become hooked.
Of course, flying in a plane is very different from driving in a car. Both Uber and Lyft were losing money even before Covid-19, and during the pandemic the company has turned more to food delivery than actual rides. The model Archer is proposing makes sense on paper, but was untested before the pandemic and remains a large question.
What’s next for Archer Aviation?
The company plans for a 80-percent-scale demonstrator in flight in 2021. Proving the company has working technology is the crucial first step.
Of course, both Goldstein and Adcock are aware that they're not the only people looking to make demonstrators or quickly prove their worth as a company. It's a crowded market, and their competition has years of experience.
"If you read a book about eVTOL 50 years from now," Goldstein says, "I think what you would find is that the last decade, the last ten years, have really been about proving that eVTOL can even work. Making sure you can take these things, like electric motors and batteries, in this vertical takeoff and horizontal cruise flight. That you can put it all together and make a business case that eVTOL can be a mode of popular transportation.
"I think what you're going to see this decade, is that we can prove now that we can put all these things together in an craft and make this magic formula work — speed, performance, range, safety, noise, low operating cost." It's not just businesses that want this, Goldstein notes — governments in Europe and America are both actively encouraging eVTOL businesses as a means to help with congestion.
"What you're going to see this decade is, businesses actually coming to market. So this is a really exciting time. It's not too late — we're standing on the shoulders of giants."
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