Technology

Stuck In Traffic? You Could Be Flying

Honda was in a familiar position with its annual Rose Parade float leading this year’s New Year’s Day spectacle in Pasadena, California. But what was that strange-looking vehicle hanging over the rolling platform along with Honda’s cars, a motorcycle and a jet? 

It was Honda’s CGI concept hybrid eVTOL. Looking like a half-helicopter, half-airplane, the electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle demonstrated the company’s transportation vision for the future. Honda has also featured CGI in a new TV ad with a similar theme.“ It has potential, but it’s a long-term project,” says Hirohide Ezuma, Honda’s eVTOL development leader. “It’s not something you’re going to see immediately.” In fact, Honda hasn’t yet committed to make an eVTOL. 

Yet automakers, aerospace companies and dozens of startups—many in Silicon Valley—are working briskly to bring VTOLs, both fully electric, and others, to the market as soon as they can. “The immediate impact potential is immense,” says Sean Moore, head of aerospace and defense at Capgemini Americas consultants. “Imagine a sky full of non-polluting eVTOLs with lower operating costs than helicopters, swiftly transporting commuters by bypassing the congestion across New York’s East River and delivering you to your airport before the coffee gets cold.” 

Indeed, the VTOL race could create a $1.5 trillion autonomous urban aircraft industry by 2040, Morgan Stanley predicts. Already there have been four significant IPOs as eVTOL enterprises jockey for position in the vanguard of a new “advanced air mobility” paradigm. 

“You can’t fly hundreds of people for thousands of miles using electric aircraft,” says Andrew Stein, CEO of Eve, an eVTOL company spun off from Brazilian aircraft giant Embraer. “But you can fly a few people not that far, and there is clear demand for that. For anyone who’s been stuck in traffic, it’s very easy to understand the sense that you could be flying.” 

The first commercialized VTOLs aren’t likely for a few years, and urban skies buzzing with this new vehicle form are still at least a decade away. But it isn’t too early to begin calculating the impact VTOLs might have on private aviation, and on the aviation industry in general. 

VTOLs combine proven technologies with limited objectives and the prospect of filling a yawning need, as well as a potential sustainability narrative. Drones—in China, even airplane-size ones—are already ubiquitous, and improvements in batteries, AI and satellite communications are expanding the possibilities for eVTOLs. Large infusions of capital will speed things along. 

Projected costs are relatively reasonable. EVTOLs will sell from around $1 million to $4 million and more, a fraction of what many fixed-wing private aircraft demand. Operating costs may be 40 percent less than for a conventional helicopter, manufacturers claim. Major first customers including airlines, helicopter operators and ridesharing mobility companies have already raised their hands to order thousands of future VTOLs. 

Industry players are promising rides that cost from $3 to $6 per seat mile, less than for a chopper, even through helicopter ride-sharing services such as Blade. “Prices for eVTOLs will start out around an Uber Black–style ticket, and then [pilotless] autonomy will let you bring down to almost a regular Uber-level ticket price,” claims Matheu Parr, customer director at Rolls-Royce Electrical, which is developing power plants for eVTOLs.

Initially, eVTOLs are likely to be used in shipping applications, because of lower technological barriers and fewer regulatory hurdles. But some envision eVTOLs becoming the environmentally friendlier heart of new urban-taxi systems that could trump helicopters, ferrying passengers around metro areas or to local airports. “If you want to fly to another city instead of driving, you could take an eVTOL flight to a smaller airport and then another aircraft to go to your final destination,” says Gaël Le Bris, vice president of aviation planning for WSP USA.

EVTOLs differ from helicopters in that they use zero-emission electric motors rather than airplane-fueled engines, have flexible configurations of tilting wings and rotors to direct thrust vertically or horizontally, and employ propulsion that is typically distributed rather than centralized on the aircraft. They require a takeoff-and-landing area much smaller than a helipad. And their recharging infrastructure is higher-voltage but similar to that required for all-electric automobiles. For good measure, there are also hybrid gas-electric VTOLs, non-electric ones and some that are actually flying cars that can double as on-the-road transportation.

Unlike automobiles, where carmakers have essentially pulled electrification of their fleets ahead of efforts to make them completely driverless, autonomous operation shares the front seat for VTOLs. “Straight to autonomy is a core first principle” for eVTOLs, Marc Allen, Boeing’s chief strategy officer, said in a recent press release about the airplane maker’s $450 million in new funding for startup Wisk. 

EVTOL makers note that their crafts differ from driverless cars in that on-the-ground transportation depends on safely navigating a complicated fixed infrastructure that isn’t found in the air. At the same time, the safety implications of an eVTOL crashing to the ground can be much more grave. 

This is one reason certification of VTOLs by the Federal Aviation Administration will be the biggest barrier to rapid deployment. Each VTOL operator will require multiple approvals of its aircraft design, its manufacturing process, and how it will operate in the air-transportation system. Then there’s how to design an infrastructure of vertiports, a challenge akin to providing networks of charging stations for electric cars. “It’s a massive roadblock to certify any aircraft in a new regulatory environment,” Stein says.

Still, many VTOL players believe the category can be certified within a few years, and in 2022 the FAA seemed to signal a cooperative stance by adding a “vertical-lift” aircraft category to the existing regulatory framework for commercial aircraft operations.

Meanwhile, eVTOL makers are focusing on substantial obstacles, such as propulsion technology. Few battery-powered drones can carry much more than a light payload at present. “It’ll be possible to travel 100 kilometers on one of these aircraft, but if you want to travel farther, we’ll need improvements in batteries and energy-storage systems,” Parr says. “We need improvements in chemistry.”

The infrastructure for a vast population of eVTOLs also remains imaginary. “Where are all these aircraft going to operate, to and from, and where will the charger stations be?” asks Andrew Schmertz, CEO of Hopscotch Air, an on-demand regional jet-charter service that is advising VTOL startup Transcend Air. “They can be a significant fire hazard.”

But the notion of a network of solar-powered chargers on top of sun-bathed urban towers seems to fit the eVTOL vision. “If you’re talking about taking vehicles into a city center, no one likes the idea of having big tanks of jet fuel on top of downtown office buildings,” says Ben Tigner, CEO of startup Overair. “But there is electric wiring on tops of all sorts of office buildings.” 

Challenges stiffen at private-aviation airports. “Most of these airports were built decades ago, and their supply of electricity never anticipated replacing liquid fuels,” says Desmond Wheatley, CEO of Beam Global, a provider of EV-charging systems. 

Safety is also a concern. VTOLs are small planes that don’t do well in inclement weather, especially that found atop skyscrapers. Helicopter analogies are also painful. In 2019, a helicopter crash-landed on a midtown building in New York City, killing the pilot. 

Manhattan currently has three major heliports on the Hudson and East rivers and is considered unlikely ever to allow eVTOLs to hop between skyscrapers. That cuts the convenience factor significantly for New Yorkers. 

Here are some of the major and hopeful players in VTOLs:

Honda: The automaker says its turbine-electric motor hybrid approach and carbon fuselage will give CGI a range of more than 400 kilometers, about four times farther than purely electric VTOLs.

Archer: Public since shortly after receiving a $1 billion order from United Airlines in 2021, Archer has announced a deal to develop an eVTOL with Stellantis. The global automaker will invest up to $150 million and mass-produce Archer’s eVTOL in Covington, Georgia, beginning in 2024. 

Lilium: The Munich-based startup flew a demonstration in 2019 of its eVTOL, which can travel up to 300 kilometers on a charge. 

It plans to make the vehicles autonomous and develop a network of 10 vertiports in the U.S. 

Eve: It’s developing an electric eVTOL with a capacity of four people, increasing to six with autonomous piloting. Eve has already sold nearly 3,000 at a list price of $3 million and plans delivery in 2026.

Wisk: The Boeing partner is on its sixth-gen eVTOL, which has completed more than 1,500 test flights, and predicts scaling to 14 million annual flights across 20 cities. 

Joby: The startup has said it plans to begin passenger service in 2025.

Overair: Its Butterfly model has a top speed of around 200 mph. 

Aska: The company is developing a hybrid gas-electric flying car that lists for $789,000. Aska Founder Guy Kaplinsky believes the eVTOL proposition advances the platform because it doesn’t require any of the trappings of aviation. “We have built a vehicle that requires zero infrastructure investment to complete its mission, door to door, with the last mile on the road driving while most commuting will be in the air,” he says.

Which companies will win the VTOL derby? Honda cites extensive experience with the highly demanding electrical-system requirements of Formula 1 auto racing and, of course, several years of Honda Jets that are now some of the most highly regarded craft in private aviation. “We’ll be using all of those aspects together,” says Honda’s Ezuma.

But most participants are backing cross-industry partnerships. “Aerospace companies come in with an understanding of what it takes to deliver a platform safely to a much higher standard than any other industry in the world,” notes Rolls-Royce’s Parr. “Auto companies come in with a past decade of experience in electrifying platforms and investing in platforms and infrastructure to deliver them. Their skill sets are complementary.”

Archer is working with Stellantis. Rolls-Royce is working with Hyundai as well as Eve, while Eve itself has brought in Porsche as a consultant. The luxury carmaker is “teaching us more about how to organize distribution and manufacturing,” Eve’s Stein says. “It’ll be only a few thousand, not a few million, vehicles, but we need to have that understanding of larger scales.”


Dale Buss

Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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