The electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft is a relatively recent innovation in the aviation industry, but has already taken the world by storm. With more than 200 companies competing globally to deliver the first “flying car” and leading passenger eVTOL OEMs expected to achieve certification by 2024, eVTOLs are poised to be the next big breakthrough in urban mobility. So, what are the tailwinds helping the nascent industry? Will eVTOLs take-off?
Management consultancy firm Kearney expects the eVTOL passenger services market in 2040 to be worth at least one-eighth the size of the airline passenger services market or US$160B and estimates that a whopping 200k eVTOLs (mostly autonomous) will serve the passenger market in the same year.
In the last decade or so, the eVTOL industry has attracted US$5.5B in cumulative funding, with around 67% (US$3.7B) invested in 2021 alone.
Startups and large companies alike are developing their own version of eVTOLs, and many of them are expected to obtain certification in the next 2-3 years and commercialize shortly thereafter. Prominent startups include Joby Aviation, Archer, Lilium, Volocopter, Vertical Aerospace and Wisk. Many of the startups are marketing themselves as providers of short intercity air taxi services.
What are the key drivers of eVTOLs?
• Congested cities: The UN estimates that by 2050, 88% of the global population will live in urban areas, which will worsen the traffic congestion in cities across the globe. • Sustainability: eVTOLs can benefit from the shift towards sustainability given that CO2 emissions from helicopters are currently 15 times greater than those of eVTOLs on a per-km basis. • Signalling: eVTOLs are also seen as a sign of technological progress as cities such as Paris, London, New York, Beijing, etc., vie to become futuristic by fast-tracking local regulations to accommodate eVTOLs.
• Trip cost: For eVTOLs to compete with ground travel, trip costs should be 80% cheaper than current costs for helicopter travel. To achieve per-passenger charges of US$25 per trip, there should ideally be more than one trip every five minutes per landing pad in a large, dense, high-income city, accounting for peak travel needs. Given the logistics of air travel- landing, boarding, charging batteries, etc., will take much more than five minutes. • Infrastructure: A variety of infrastructure is needed to support eVTOLs apart from the take-off and landing pads, such as charging networks, connectivity, air traffic control, etc. • Regulatory approval: The biggest roadblock to the adoption of eVTOLs are the regulations set by aviation operators such as the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). • Safety: While research by aerospace engineering company Horizon Aircraft shows that adults are ready to fly in eVTOLs, 75% of the respondents pointed to aircraft safety as their main concern. • Battery: eVTOLs run on batteries, and they can only hold a limited amount of energy. So longer journeys need bigger/more batteries which makes the aircraft heavier and reduces its payload capacity.
eVTOLs have made a lot of progress in a relatively short span of time, capturing the attention of everyday folk by promising to make flying cars a reality. And eVTOLs are also forcing aviation regulators and cities to re-think regulation. Despite the rapid developments, the eVTOL industry faces significant near-term challenges, from making trips more affordable to getting the necessary approvals to increasing flight times. So, it remains to be seen if flying cars will finally become a reality or if they’ll continue to be a pipe dream.