Dec 7, 2022 - Technology

The "flying taxis" of the future are lifting off

Image of Joby's electric air taxi during a test flight in California.

Joby's electric air taxi is undergoing testing in California. Photo courtesy of Joby

Some odd-looking aircraft are flying circles above strawberry and lettuce fields in rural California, as the next era in aviation draws closer.

Why it matters: Powered by electric batteries and designed to take off like a helicopter but fly like a plane, these newfangled aircraft — now undergoing testing — could soon be certified to whisk you to the airport or elsewhere.

They're called electric air taxis, or electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOLs) — essentially cleaner, quieter helicopters.

The big question: Whether anyone other than rich executives and thrill-seeking tourists will ever fly in them — and that depends on ticket costs.

  • EVTOLs are expected to be cheaper to maintain than traditional helicopters because their electric motors have fewer moving parts.
  • Most eVTOL companies are targeting fares about equal to an Uber Black trip, which could make them a (relatively) affordable option.

The big picture: Urban air mobility is billed as the next big thing in transportation — quiet, electric aircraft skipping over congested roadways.

  • Morgan Stanley projects the market will take off slowly, but will be worth $1 trillion by 2040 and $9 trillion by 2050.
  • Investors have poured $6 billion into newly public eVTOL manufacturers, including Joby Aviation, Archer Aviation and others.

Yes, but: After soaring initially, most eVTOL stocks have lost altitude this year amid broader economic woes and timeline uncertainty.

Where it stands: Executives at Joby and Archer, widely seen as the leading U.S. players, remain confident, saying their eVTOLs are moving out of the research and development phase and into early commercialization.

  • Both expect to complete the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification process by 2024 and to begin service in 2025.

Details: During my recent visit to Joby's pilot plant at Marina Municipal Airport in Monterey County, California, workers were assembling the aircraft slowly, one at a time.

  • Many of the high-tech processes were laid out by Toyota, a Joby investor, to prepare for scaling up.
  • Joby is unique among eVTOL companies for its vertical integration — it has created many unique parts for its aircraft, rather than using proven, FAA-validated aviation components.

That's because the eVTOLs' transformational design requires fresh thinking, Joby executive chairman Paul Sciarra tells Axios.

  • "We're going to be building aircraft at volumes that will very soon exceed what are traditional aerospace volumes," he says. "So we had to start with production processes that we knew would scale."

Archer is also prepping for wide-scale production.

  • The California-based company, which counts Stellantis and United Airlines as investors, recently announced plans to build a manufacturing facility in Covington, Georgia, near Covington Municipal Airport.
  • It's working on a 350,000-square-foot facility capable of producing up to 650 aircraft per year. There's room to grow by an additional 550,000 square feet, enabling production of up to 2,300 aircraft per year.
  • Production of Midnight, its sleek air taxi, is slated to begin in the latter half of 2024.

Reality check, courtesy of Deutsche Bank analyst Edison Yu: Most personal transportation will remain ground-based for the near future.

  • The "Jetsons" sci-fi vision of urban air mobility for everyone won't arrive until at least the late 2030s, he says.
  • "You still have to make this into a business one day."

Editor's note: This piece was updated to clarify that the process to make the aircraft is high-tech but slow.

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