This article is part of our series on the future of transportation, which examines innovations and challenges that affect the way we move around the world.

It’s late afternoon in Manhattan and you have a flight to Kennedy International Airport. Instead of sitting in rush hour traffic for two hours, take a short ride to a nearby parking garage, where you board an electric plane that takes off vertically from the roof and you 20 minutes later for about the same cost as a fancy rideshare. You make your flight on time.

While this scenario may sound far-fetched, several companies say they are on the verge of offering safe, cheap, and clean electric aircraft that allow passengers to travel between two and 250 miles without a conventional runway. Public and private experts believe the technology could grow into a huge market that will help reduce traffic jams and change the way people travel in large metropolitan areas.

While urban air travel is currently out of the reach of most customers (think: Uber Copter), improvements in battery technology have lowered the cost of developing electrically powered aircraft suitable for urban passenger transport. These companies are betting that they can bring urban and regional electric aviation to the masses and have developed new aircraft to compete for part of this emerging market over the next several years.

“We want to create something that is available to many people, that can do the work of a high-speed train without the necessary infrastructure,” said Daniel Wiegand, CEO and founder of Lilium Air Mobility, based in Germany. “We won’t have the ticket price of a high-speed train in Germany on our first day, but if we don’t make it within 15 years, I would consider our mission a failure.”

Manufacturers say these electric aircraft have numerous advantages over traditional airplanes, and helicopters in particular, which are expensive to maintain and fly, noisy, and pose safety risks, such as the crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight other passengers.

The new electric aircraft consume a fifth of the energy of conventional helicopters. In contrast to conventional fixed-wing aircraft, they do not need a runway. Unlike helicopters, they are largely inaudible from the ground and have multiple rotors and backup systems, which makes them much safer.

Adam Goldstein, co-head of Archer Aviation, said his company hopes to offer tariffs in the range of three to four dollars per mile traveled. That would cost between $ 50 and $ 80 the drive from Manhattan to Kennedy, typically 17 miles. Several experts predicted that the price of regional flights would be roughly the same as luxury car service Uber Black.

“The biggest cost is the batteries,” said Goldstein, which are “expensive but getting cheaper every day.” (He declined to provide details on battery procurement and costs.)

Several companies, including Lilium and Archer, have excelled in a crowded field for their technology and capital-raising skills. Nobody is satisfied with just making vehicles; all aim to both develop aircraft and provide end-to-end service by combining the traditional roles of aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and airlines such as Delta.

Several experts credited Tesla and other auto companies entering the electronics market for cutting the cost of batteries. Traditional manufacturers like Hyundai are also increasing their investments in electric aircraft and hope to have an aircraft in service in 2028.

The more established players in the space like Joby Aviation and Volocopter promise to have aircraft operational by 2024, an ambitious target that will largely depend on regulatory approval.

The largest investment area is in electric vehicles that take off and land vertically, such as helicopters or Harrier jets. Known as Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing or eVTOLs, these aircraft typically seat between two and ten passengers and can travel up to 200 miles, making them ideal for traversing a metropolitan area or connecting two cities.

Lilium’s Mr Wiegand had a lightbulb moment in 2014 when he saw a video of a military aircraft taking off vertically and realized that an electric version could solve all of the traditional problems of using aircraft in densely populated urban areas: eliminating noise, air pollution, and the need for Runways. At that time still a student at the Technical University of Munich, Mr. Wiegand put together a team and began developing the engine that now powers his company’s seven-seater electric jet.


Nov. 19, 2021, 7:00 p.m. ET

He believes his company’s jet technology scales better than propeller-based designs, and argues that the additional capacity would help bring costs down to levels affordable for mid-range consumers.

Volocopter, founded in 2011 and based in Munich, takes a different approach; Two vehicles are currently in the pre-development phase, including a “multicopter”, a copter with 18 rotor blades, called VoloCity. The two-seat aircraft has a range of 22 miles, which according to Florian Reuter, the chairman of the board, makes certification easier than some longer-range electric aircraft and ideal for city travel, where the vast majority of travel is 10-20 inches. Volocopter is also developing a four-seat aircraft with a range of 100 miles that is more geared towards regional traffic.

“We are one of the few companies that recognize that there are different missions and different types of vehicles for different missions,” said Reuter.

Volocopter is seeking regulatory approval from the European Union’s Aviation Safety Agency and hopes to have its aircraft operational by 2024.

Joby, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., Has a similar goal with a broader approach and has flown over 1,000 test flights on its all-electric aircraft, which seats four passengers plus the pilots and has a range of 250 miles on a single charge. The company hit the headlines last December when ride-sharing giant Uber Elevate outsourced its urban ridesharing product to Joby and invested an additional $ 75 million in the company, signaling the two services will be seamlessly connected would be.

Cities are already preparing to introduce electric aircraft into their already congested transportation systems. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti founded Urban Movement Labs in 2019; Today, the organization is focused on getting electric aircraft approved for public use by the FAA as early as 2025.

The FAA declined several interview requests, but said it was reviewing electric aircraft on a case-by-case basis.

Miami’s Mayor Francis Suarez said his city recognizes eVTOLs as a low-cost, environmentally friendly alternative to traditional modes of transport, such as buses and light rail, which are costly to build and rely on older technology. He said the city is examining parking garages, rooftops and other potential take-off and landing sites.

“We believe that one of the mistakes in transportation planning and financing is overhauling yesterday’s ideas,” he said in an interview. “The sky obviously has several dimensions and gives you the opportunity to be creative.”

Mr Suarez added that he had urged Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg to adopt urban air mobility instead of focusing on older modes of transport.

Sam Morrissey, executive director of Urban Movement Labs, said the aircraft will likely remain confined to existing commercial airports and flight routes for the time being until officials can see how the new take-off and landing locations can be added without disrupting other modes of transport. (Joby and Archer have both started certification under the rules for existing fixed-wing aircraft.)

“Our challenge is that when they are supposed to arrive we can have everything in place so that not only the rich can use it,” said Morrissey.


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