The Biggest Problem With Flying Cars Is on the Ground
The startups and investors that have sent hopes soaring for “flying cars” could be in for a rough landing, in more ways than one.
Hundreds of companies, new ones and legacy aviation players alike, are working on such vehicles—also called air taxis or eVTOLs (short for electric vertical take off and landing). Five such startups have gone public in the past 12 months. They are trying to shape a near future in which taking a flying cab is an economically viable alternative to taking a terrestrial one.
The biggest stumbling block to that sci-fi vision, though, is rather down-to-earth: Flying-car companies haven’t figured out how to site, permit and construct enough places for their vehicles to land and take off to allow a workable business model for making and operating sky taxis.
The problem could have huge implications for the nascent flying-car industry, and for any hope that we will be commuting by air anytime soon. Early entrants to the industry, such as Joby Aviation, Lilium, Wisk,
and Archer Aviation, have focused on the challenges of designing and building flying cars that work, and getting them certified as safe by the Federal Aviation Administration. Those challenges are considerable. Setting aside the cost of designing a prototype flying car in the first place, the process of submitting those designs to the FAA, testing them to verify they meet the agency’s specifications, and revising them can take years and is projected by analysts to cost up to $1 billion all by itself.
To date, most of the early investors in these companies have behaved as if solving those challenges is 90% of the work required to make flying cars commercially viable, says Todd Petersen, a consultant at
Calif.-based Lacuna Technologies, which creates software for cities to help them manage their transportation networks.
That ignores a range of other issues once the vehicles are ready to fly: where they will land and take off, how they will be integrated into existing air-traffic control systems, and whether the public will accept a large number of newfangled and comparatively large aircraft flying over their homes. Sorting out all that regulation and ground infrastructure is the “second 90%” of the problem of rolling out flying cars, says Mr. Petersen.
Mihir Rimjha is a senior aviation consultant at HMMH, a firm that helps governments and businesses with transportation planning. He has studied what are called “vertiports”—like heliports, but for eVTOLs, in depth, in work commissioned by NASA. He says that building out networks of rooftop vertiports in U.S. cities, on buildings and parking decks, will be critical for making flying taxi services and even privately owned flying cars a viable means of transportation. And, he adds, the companies haven’t been realistic about the hurdles involved.
For starters, there is the problem of how many suitable vertiport sites exist in America’s major cities. Here are just some of the factors that affect that equation: noise, the lack of airspace not already claimed by airports in cities like New York, and the necessity of retrofitting existing structures to be strong enough to accommodate flying vehicles and also provide them massive bursts of electricity for charging.
Setting those aside, every place that a vertical-take-off-and-landing vehicle is intended to land must be relatively free of surrounding structures—not just today, but indefinitely, says Mr. Petersen. This necessity is spelled out in the FAA’s rules on helicopter landing pads, which most in the industry believe will be the model for rules governing vertiports. That in turn means that getting FAA permission for a landing pad for a flying car requires figuring out all of the “glide paths” that such a vehicle can use when approaching a landing spot, should it suffer a mechanical failure.
Preserving such glide paths could mean, for example, that owners of property adjacent to vertiports might never be allowed to build anything higher than the vertiport—a particularly tricky and potentially controversial issue if cities are to play host to many such vertiports.
New York City’s history with helipads may prove instructive. Getting clearance from the FAA for a private landing pad is challenging, and residents generally oppose them—as they did with one granted to Amazon during its attempt to build an HQ in Long Island City. A crash on the roof of the Pan Am building in 1977 that killed five people has had a chilling effect on rooftop helipads in the city ever since.
Joby and Archer, which both went public last year, have said they aim to gain vertiport access by joining with Softbank-funded Reef Technologies, which manages parking lots and multistory parking decks across the U.S. Joby said last year that its collaboration would give it access to “an unparalleled range of rooftop locations across all key metropolitan areas in the U.S., as well as a mechanism to fund the acquisition and development of new skyport sites.”
A spokeswoman for Joby said that the company is “focused initially on existing aviation infrastructure and convertible assets,” such as the aforementioned parking garages.
Archer declined to comment on its vertiport plans.
Erick Corona, head of product development at Wisk, says his company believes it can sell more than enough of its autonomous vehicles to users of existing heliport and airport infrastructure to create a viable business. Eventually, vertiport developers like SkyPorts—a partner of Wisk—will be able to create vertiports where there is demand.
Further in the future, flying cars could get their own dedicated highways in the sky, he adds.
Jeremy Ford, head of property strategy at Reef, says that many U.S. cities already have heliports, but that it is still “very early innings” for his company and for flying-car companies in terms of figuring out how vertiports will actually be constructed, and where they will be placed.
Ricky Sandhu is at the forefront of trying to solve the vertiport problem, and he says that skeptical analyses of what’s next for the flying car industry are “absolutely right and completely on the money.”
He is founder and chief executive of Urban-
Port, which recently opened what it says is the world’s first operational urban vertiport, called Air One, in a parking lot near a train station in Coventry, England. Mr. Sandhu is an architect who has led design teams on major infrastructure projects. In 2017, while consulting for Airbus on its flying-car efforts, he had a lightbulb moment: For this new mode of transportation to really take off, someone needed to work with landlords, local air-traffic controllers, national governments and city zoning boards to give the vehicles places to touch ground.
Air One has for the past few weeks hosted around 10 drone flights a day. Despite close collaboration with local and national air-traffic controllers and the city of Coventry, which is funding the vertiport, Air One has had teething issues, says Mr. Sandhu. Recently, for example, a large cargo drone was supposed to fly from Air One and land on the roof of a parking deck elsewhere in the city. But the builders of an office tower under development near the flight path raised safety objections, so the drone could only take off, fly in a circle and land again.
“Without the proper infrastructure, investment in eVTOLs is at risk,” says Mr. Sandhu.
Infrastructure challenges have led Air, an Israeli startup, to pursue a different strategy: creating flying cars that will be owned by individuals and can hop between privately owned vertiports. Air intends to bypass the high level of FAA certification required of aircraft that carry passengers, and the need to operate vertiports, by selling its flying cars directly to individuals who will pilot them themselves, says CEO Rani Plaut. Some of the company’s customers are already planning vertiports attached to their homes, he adds.
Stock-market investors are showing skepticism about flying-car companies. In step with the general selloff of shares in tech companies that have yet to show a profit, the valuations of the five flying-car companies that have gone public in the past year via SPAC (Vertical, Joby, Archer, Lilium and Eve) have declined significantly since their peaks at the beginning of April. Joby alone has lost about $2.4 billion in value, or 35% of its value at its peak on March 31.
Skeptics point to other reasons for caution. Dr. Rimjha co-wrote a report published last year which found that almost none of the assumptions touted by air-taxi companies that have recently gone public seem realistic: not their cost-per-vehicle figures, or their assumptions about cost per mile to operate these vehicles, or the time it will take to turn these vehicles into a commercial service.
When it went public, Joby projected it would cost $1.3 million to build each vehicle. Antonio Trani, a professor of engineering at Virginia Tech and Dr. Rimjha’s co-author, estimates, based on decades of evaluating aircraft, that after the FAA is done certifying Joby’s vehicle, the true price will be between $2 million and $3 million. Joby has also predicted that operating costs for its vehicles will be 86 cents a passenger mile. Dr. Trani thinks the actual figure will be between $3 and $4 a passenger mile.
The analysis also found that companies won’t be able to put vertiports where people most want to travel. Taking into consideration all that’s required in the places in America’s cities where there could be the greatest demand for flying cars, like dense urban cores, “we can’t really find much space for vertiports, even on rooftops,” says Dr. Rimjha.
For future vertiports, “permitting is a real issue,” says Mike Whitaker, a former FAA administrator who is now chief commercial officer at Supernal, a subsidiary of Hyundai that is working on a flying car of its own. It’s possible that cities will be forced to put vertiports in more outlying and low-lying areas—abandoned shopping malls could be ideal—and that access to such an amenity could cause more real-estate development around such an asset, he adds.
That would add time to any such trip for commuters or even just rich people who want to get out of town—and based on historical evidence, that would have a big impact on how much they use such services, says Dr. Rimjha.
That could force air-taxi companies to rethink their business models, perhaps to focus on smaller markets, such as replacing part of the world’s existing fleet of helicopters.
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In the short term, these forces mean that “regional air mobility”—flights between cities and towns—is a more likely application for eVTOLs than flights within cities, says Robin Riedel, co-leader of the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility and a partner at the consulting firm.
All the time and effort required to create the ground infrastructure for flying cars could also mean companies that can afford to play a long game could be the ones that ultimately succeed. If falling stock prices and a scarcity of investment force consolidation in the flying-car industry, this could mean legacy aerospace companies, not disrupters, might someday build our Jetsons future.
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Write to Christopher Mims at [email protected]
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