Flying cars used to be the stuff of sci-fi movies. As climate change threatens the future of humanity, innovators are developing cleaner vehicles for our cities, and some of them have wings.
Rolls-Royce has just announced it is partnering with Vertical Aerospace to design the propulsion and electric power systems for Vertical's latest electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) model. Imagine a helicopter that runs on clean energy, provides affordable taxi services for up to 120-mile distances, and can land virtually anywhere; you'll get the picture.
The concept of eVTOL vehicles has attracted innovators for years. With quiet electric motors, these vehicles require only a patch of concrete to land, never get stuck in traffic, and are five times faster than taxis. They could become affordable through ride-sharing and will likely revolutionize intra-city and inter-city mobility.
Vertical Aerospace conducted its first eVTOL test flight in 2018. At the time, the UK-based company announced its flying taxis would be operational by 2022. The date has now been pushed back to 2024.
A Magnet for Investors
Over the last couple of years, investors have been pouring massive amounts of cash into flying taxis. At least three hundred companies are currently working on eVTOL development.
According to a report by Deloitte, elevated mobility will become a reality before the end of the 2020s. In the beginning, eVTOLs will be piloted, but they will eventually become autonomous. The partnership between Rolls-Royce, a provider of world-class aircraft engines, and Vertical Aerospace will likely accelerate the technology's development and adoption.
By 2040, Morgan Stanley estimates, the eVTOL market could be worth $674 billion. Germany's Lilium was just valued at $3.3 billion, while Archer was valued at $4 billion, and Joby Aviation was valued at $7 billion. Archer says it will implement flying taxi networks in Los Angeles by 2024 and expects to be running autonomous services by 2028.
“The technology is ready to go. The eVTOL market will become huge very fast,” Valhil Capital President Scott Minett comments. “It is important to understand that the first flying taxis will not be a luxury for the super-rich; we are talking about rather affordable rides. For example, Joby estimates a trip from Manhattan to JFK airport will cost under $40 per person in its five-seater eVTOL. Today, people are paying more than that to sweat in traffic in an Uber.”
Decarbonizing the Industry
Vertical Aerospace founder Stephen Fitzpatrick told CNN that he wants his company to “decarbonize air travel and give people the freedom to fly from their local neighborhood directly to their destination.” Fitzpatrick is convinced that eVTOL services will help reduce the aviation industry's carbon footprint.
The aerospace company's CEO Michael Cervenka said Vertical is looking forward to its collaboration with Rolls-Royce and to “bringing onboard a hugely experienced team with deep expertise and cutting-edge electrical technologies to power [its] pioneering eVTOL aircraft."
Vertical’s partnership with Rolls-Royce is rather strategic, considering the latter is currently building the largest jet engine to date, which promises to reduce the airline industry’s carbon emissions once the pandemic subsides. Twenty percent more efficient than Rolls-Royce’s original Trent engines, the prototype, the company said, can run on sustainable fuels like cooking oil and will be ready by the end of the year.
As eVTOL technology evolves, psychological barriers will be the last frontier. A Deloitte survey found that 80 percent of respondents think flying taxis won’t be safe. “eVTOL aircraft can become part of the new mobility ecosystem only when creators and operators convince skeptical consumers that airborne vehicles are both useful and safe,” analysts wrote.
Neither investors nor regulators share in the consumers’ fear. For the Federal Aviation Administration’s Joseph Pellettiere, “While eVTOLs are new types of vehicles entering the national aerospace system, they have many features of existing types of aircraft. . . This is the time for eVTOL developers to be thinking about crash safety as they are early in the development process. If you view crash safety as a system-level concept, many small design changes now can pay great dividends later that would be more difficult in the future.”