Flying vehicles offer solution to urban traffic congestion
The X2 flying car produced by Chinese company XPeng is displayed at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, in September. (LONG WEI / FOR CHINA DAILY)
Traffic jams are a common problem in cities around the world, be it Beijing, Tokyo or New York, with some frustrated drivers wishing they could fly over vehicles blocking their path.
Such ambitions may be fulfilled sooner than many expect, with "flying cars", commonly known as electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, or eVTOLs, fast becoming a reality.
HT Aero, an affiliate of Chinese electric vehicle maker Xpeng, demonstrated a flying car late last month, saying it plans to introduce these vehicles in 2024.
The cars will feature a lightweight design and rotors that fold away, so that the vehicles can be driven on roads before and after flight. With a number of safety features, including parachutes, each vehicle will cost less than 1 million yuan ($156,400), the company said.
Globally, some 250 companies are developing and producing flying vehicles, and the list is growing, according to a report by consultancy McKinsey.
Robin Riedel, a McKinsey partner, said the flying cars sector has existed for more than a decade, and the "convergence of several trends" has led to increased interest in it.
"First, on-demand services have changed the way we think about mobility. Second, there's a focus on sustainability, which these vehicles support. Third, there's a lot of funding available from investors who want to be a part of the next big thing," Riedel said.
HT Aero, which last month raised $500 million in its latest financing round, is now valued at more than $1 billion. Startup Joby Aviation, based in the United States, went public on the New York Stock Exchange in August, while Lilium, headquartered in Germany, is also planning a flotation.
The emerging flying vehicles sector, which is now viewed as a serious solution to urban traffic congestion and a new alternative to personal mobility in cities, is expected to grow into a market valued at $1 trillion by 2040 and $9 trillion by 2050, according to global financial services company Morgan Stanley.
Flying vehicles are typically about the size of ordinary ones, or slightly larger. Featuring rotors, or wings and rotors, most of them will fly at speeds of 100 to 300 kilometers per hour and carry several passengers.
Powered by batteries, the cars have less complicated parts than ordinary vehicles, and are safer than light aircraft such as helicopters. Without traditional engines, they are quieter and are also expected to be cheaper.
Fabien Nestmann, vice-president of public affairs at Volocopter, a company based in Germany that focuses on making flying an option for everyone and on reinventing mobility in urban areas, said: "We don't want this to be a toy for the wealthy, but part of a well-integrated journey for anyone in an urban area. Everyone should have the option to walk, be driven, cycle, or fly."
An Ehang 184 passenger drone is put through its paces during a test flight in the southern city of Guangzhou. (FENG ZHOUFENG / FOR CHINA DAILY)
Established in 2011, Volocopter is one of the world's first flying vehicle companies. In 2019, Chinese carmaker Geely, Mercedes's parent company Daimler and others invested 500 million euros ($564.8 million) in the startup in an effort to bring its flying cars to China.
In September, Volocopter and Geely built a joint venture in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, to produce flying vehicles and parts.
Volocopter said the joint venture has also signed a deal to buy 150 flying vehicles from the company.
The partnership is aimed at bringing urban air mobility to China in the next three to five years, which Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter views as "the biggest single market opportunity for the urban air mobility industry".
No details have been given on how the Chinese market will be explored, but Volocopter has already worked out a schedule for Rome, the Italian capital, with the support of local airport operator Aeroporti di Roma and its main shareholder Atlantia.
This month, the startup said that by 2025 it would offer a 20-minute flying taxi service between Rome's Fiumicino airport and the city center.
The company said it still needs to finalize related flight regulations and develop "vertiports" for air taxis to take off and land vertically.
The flying taxi to be used in Rome, the VoloCity, has 18 independent rotors and can travel at a maximum speed of 110 kph for 35 minutes.
Initially, the vehicle will carry the pilot and one passenger, but will take two passengers when it can fly autonomously.
It has a payload of 200 kilograms, including passengers and luggage. Once a flight is completed, the lithium-ion batteries can be replaced within five minutes, allowing for a quick turnaround.
According to local news reports, the planned 20-minute flying taxi ride from Fiumicino airport to the city center will cost 140 euros, compared with a taxi fare of 48 euros, or 14 euros for the 32-minute train journey.
In addition to startups, established car giants are getting serious about the market in the sky.
South Korean carmaker Hyundai Motor is developing a flying car with Uber. Powered by batteries, it will carry up to six people to and from airports from highly congested urban centers.
Jose Munoz, the company's global chief operating officer, said urban air taxis would be operating at major airports in the US by 2025.
"We see this market as a significant growth opportunity," Munoz said, adding that he is highly confident about development of the technology.
Geely showcases a flying car at its booth at the Shanghai auto show, held from April 19 to 28, 2021. (LI FUSHENG / CHINA DAILY)
Meanwhile, in January, General Motors unveiled a flying concept at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas featuring a 90-kilowatt motor powering an ultra lightweight body with four pairs of rotors.
This autonomous single-passenger model will travel at speeds of up to 90 kph, the carmaker said.
However, the company added that flying taxi services will not be in commercial use until 2030, as the sector needs to overcome regulatory and technical hurdles.
Pamela Fletcher, vice-president of GM's global innovation team, told Reuters, "I think there's a long pathway here－2030 is probably a real commercial inflection point.
"It's a very nascent space. There's a lot of work to be done on the regulatory side, as well as the actual technology side."
To date, no eVTOLs have won type certificates, which show the aviation authorities' acceptance of an aircraft's design.
After this process, which may take years and millions of dollars to complete, other credentials will be required, such as airworthiness certificates, before the vehicles can take to the air.
Gary Gysin, CEO of flying car designer and producer Wisk, which is based in the US, said there is also a lack of regulations for the sector. "Globally, we're finding that many countries are still figuring out what eVTOLs and urban air mobility regulations look like," he said.
According to its website, the US Federal Aviation Administration is working on advanced air mobility and urban air mobility in its planning efforts. "Our work is organized around five areas of activity－aircraft, airspace, operations, infrastructure and community", it said.
Finance is another major hurdle for the sector. According to Gysin, it usually costs about $2 billion to bring a new aircraft to the market, including its certification.
The cost would be lower for flying cars, but it would still be a big sum－and then there is the infrastructure to consider.
The McKinsey report said the number of places where flying vehicles are allowed to land and take off will be an important factor for the size of the market.
If only a few such sites are available, flying car transportation could follow a pattern similar to that seen in the present-day helicopter market, where the number of potential destinations is limited.
The closer that passengers are to takeoff and landing sites, the greater the potential for time savings, the main reason people will choose flying vehicles.
McKinsey estimates that for large, densely populated cities, such as Shanghai, New York and London, some 85 to 100 takeoff and landing pads could be required.
Building such infrastructure in a city would cost about $35 million to $45 million, with annual operating costs of some $110 million to $130 million.
Assuming that a single trip costs about $150, which means a charge of $50 to $75 per passenger depending on the number of seats available, infrastructure operators would need roughly 2,200 trips per day to be made in order to break even.
To make more money, operators need more trips, which in turn will entail lower charges or additional time saved, which could require extra takeoff and landing areas. All these factors require huge initial investment to get multiple parties involved in the quest for profitable solutions.
Despite these challenges, investors are enthusiastic about the sector's potential. Statistics from McKinsey show total disclosed investment in flying cars exceeded $8 billion by the end of March.
However, potential customers are less excited about the prospects, according to a McKinsey survey this year of a total of 4,800 people in China, Brazil, Germany, India, Poland and the US.
The survey found that only 35 percent of respondents using ride-hailing services for airport trips said they would definitely switch to a flying vehicle, as did 32 percent of limousine users.
McKinsey said these two groups may be among the first to use flying vehicles for two reasons－ride-hailing users are already accustomed to new shared mobility options, and as limousines are relatively expensive, clients are more likely to find eVTOL fares acceptable.
For daily commuting, 47 percent of those polled in India said they would definitely switch to a flying vehicle, followed by 30 percent in Brazil.
But the proportions were lower in larger economies: 21 percent in China, 14 percent in the US and 10 percent in Germany. In these three countries, only 20 percent said they would accept a charge that was double the second-best alternative.
More than 30 percent of respondents in all the countries surveyed said a short travel time is the most attractive feature of aerial vehicles, while over 60 percent said safety was their top concern about such vehicles, making this the most important issue by far.
Flying cars are first likely to take to the air commercially in the US and European countries, where the general aviation industry is well developed. General aviation refers to civil aircraft operations, with the exception of commercial airlines.
Statistics show that more than 200,000 general aviation aircraft, including helicopters and private jets, were operating in the US by the end of last year, and about 136,000 in Europe.
According to the Civil Aviation Administration of China, 523 companies owning 2,892 aircraft were operating in the country's general aviation industry at the end of last year.
The flying vehicles sector is expected to grow as the country pilots the reform of low-altitude airspace, starting with the provinces of Hunan, Jiangxi and Anhui, with measures that include streamlined application procedures.
Riedel, the McKinsey partner, said advanced air mobility is the "next revolution in aerospace", but it is going to be nothing like the way in which it is depicted in movies, such as taking a flying taxi to a grocery store.
"In 10 years, my most optimistic guess is that you'll have hundreds of these vehicles flying in a big city, but I don't think they're going to be a reasonable alternative to buses, cars or trains in that time period," he said.
Global consultancy Roland Berger estimates there will be up to 160,000 flying vehicles operating as air taxis by 2050, but they will not be the main feature of the urban mobility sector.
It said there will primarily be three types of flying vehicles. City taxis with a range of 15 to 50 kms will cater to inner-city transportation needs, airport shuttles with the same range will take travelers to and from airports, while intercity jets covering distances of up to 250 km will provide services between major urban destinations.
Manfred Hader, a Roland Berger senior partner, said, "By 2050, airport shuttles and intercity services together will take the lion's share of the market, achieving about 90 percent of revenue."