Uber, but it flies.
That’s the elevator pitch behind a new start-up craze. A growing number of companies all over the world are taking an old concept—tiny airplanes—and pairing it with the much newer concepts of electric propulsion and the app-based rideshare.
If the combo works, you might soon have another way of getting around the city—one that soars right over traffic and buildings and bridges. Sure, it’d cost more than a car does. But if everything goes perfectly, it’d be affordable enough for you, even you, to take a plane to work sometimes.
“This is not just an industry attempt at improvement, this is a global cultural shift that is leading this,” Roei Ganzarski, the CEO of Washington State electric propulsion company magniX, told The Daily Beast. “Electric aviation is significantly lower cost, lower noise, zero emissions. The tech is better and cheaper. Combine that with a better business model and now it can all work.”
Google co-founder Larry Page’s air-taxi firm Kittyhawk is pushing a vertical-takeoff electric plane it calls Heaviside. Intel, Toyota, and JetBlue have invested tens of millions of dollars in Joby, another electric air-taxi venture. Traditional planemakers including Airbus, Boeing and Bell have their own air-taxi efforts. Even Uber is trying to take to the sky, on-demand.
After years of mostly secret development, some of the new air taxis are beginning to break cover. The more ambitious companies hope to start selling rides in the next few years. A few are also hoping to fly their air taxis without pilots. Drone air taxis, if you will.
But don’t get too excited, at least not yet. The flying rideshare firms, many of which are developing their own airplanes, are counting on super-efficient batteries—oh, and generous air-traffic regulators—to make their on-demand air-travel ambitions realistic.
There’s an awful lot that could go wrong. Every generation or so since the invention of the airplane, some entrepreneur has tried to sell “air taxis” to the public. There were air taxis in the 1930s but they were expensive because, well, all air travel was expensive in those early years.
Adjusted for inflation, a plane ticket might have cost only slightly more than it does now. The difference is that American families now earn three times as much today as they did 90 years ago, adjusted for inflation. So in a very real sense, air travel in the 1930s cost three times what it does in 2021.
A revival in air taxis in the 1960s and 1970s hinged on what was, at the time, a fairly new kind of aircraft. The helicopter. It didn’t need a runway. And in the United States, the federal government was throwing subsidies at companies using ’copters as shuttles between big cities and their airports.
But a spate of horrific fatal crashes involving one NYC air-taxi company nearly killed off the industry in the late 1970s.
More recently, an Israeli firm invented a new vertical-launching and landing air taxi using downward blasting “ducted fan” engines. Urban Aeronautics has been trying to sell its air taxi since the early 2000s, without much success.
The current wave of air-taxi start-ups started a decade ago. Car-based rideshare companies were all the rage. And new tech promised to make flying rideshares possible… soon.
Today all over the world there are scores of serious air-taxi start-ups, most of them counting on some new kind of electric airplane to make them viable.
Heaviside is a great case study. The California-based company has spent millions of dollars since its 2010 founding tinkering with new electric aircraft designs. Some worked. Some didn’t. The firm has shuttered some of its programs and spun off others and is currently weathering some major personnel changes.
Under CEO Sebastian Thrun—one of the pioneers of self-driving cars and a Google vet—the company’s present focus is Heaviside, a single-person plane with a 20-foot wingspan and eight battery-powered propellers that can swivel downward, allowing the plane to take off from a 30-by-30-foot patch of grass.
In case you’re wondering, “Heaviside” isn’t a Cats reference. Kitty Hawk named its plane after influential English physicist Oliver Heaviside. “Our mission is to free the world from traffic,” the company told The Daily Beast in a statement. “We don't want to sell the aircraft, we want to sell rides and do so at a cost competitive to ground transportation.”
Kitty Hawk unveiled Heaviside in 2019 and aims to offer rides as early as 2024, pending further testing and approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. The $300,000 plane has completed hundreds of unmanned test flights in the past couple of years.
Kitty Hawk claims the Heaviside can fly 100-mile round-trips at a top speed of 180 miles per hour while keeping noise down to 35 decibels—around as noisy as a suburban street—and keeping a quarter of its battery power in reserve, just in case. If something goes wrong, the Heaviside pops a parachute and floats to the ground.
Kitty Hawk hopes people will be willing to pay a premium for Heaviside’s speed advantage over an old-school Uber. It’s not clear how much a Heaviside ride might cost, but consider this: Germany air-taxi company Lilium guessed, perhaps optimistically, that a trip from Manhattan to JFK International Airport might take 10 minutes and cost $70.
Batteries will make or break Heaviside and other electric air taxis. If a battery is too heavy or can’t generate enough electricity fast enough at a low price point, the plane it’s powering might never get off the ground. Or maybe it’ll fly, but not fast enough or far enough to justify its cost.
Developers are optimistic. Batteries, after all, are getting better and cheaper at an accelerating rate—kind of like computer chips did in the golden years of the P.C. back in the 1990s and early 2000s.
There are skeptics, of course. Batteries are getting better practically by the day, but they’re still way too weak for anything bigger than a small air taxi traveling just a few hundred miles at a time.
“All sorts of new battery chemistries are under investigation, but none will be ready for 10 to 15 years,” Robert Thomson, an analyst at Roland Berger, a consultancy in Munich, told The Daily Beast. “Although range and payload may squeeze upwards in the next few years, we don’t see any breakthrough that would allow, for instance, 200-seater aircraft to be all-electric.”
And batteries can be a safety risk. “At a mishap… these are major firebombs, impossible to extinguish,” said Bjorn Fehrm, an analyst with Leeham News and Analysis in Washington State.
There are other obstacles. Regulators are a big one. The FAA is already struggling to keep up with the rapid spread of tiny drones. It’s been a bloody regulatory battle keeping flying robots away from our airports and out of our bird sanctuaries. As many as 1,000 drones a month intrude on the restricted air space around Los Angeles International Airport.
Now imagine air taxis zipping around major cities. Threading around skyscrapers. Ducking under power lines. And yes, dodging people’s drones. “The FAA can certify new technologies through its existing regulations. We may issue special conditions or additional requirements, depending on the type of project,” was all an agency spokesperson had to say on the subject.
Kitty Hawk for one said it appreciates the challenge. “A big part of gaining regulatory approval hinges on gaining public acceptance,” the company stated.
So even if the technology works, costs are reasonable and regulators give air taxis the thumbs up, customers will have the final say in whether flying Ubers are a good idea. Would you pay a premium for a quick trip to the airport? And would you trust an experimental electric airplane to take you?