Some of the brightest engineers in the world are racing to make science fiction-esque flying taxis a reality. None are ready to fly you over Manhattan, but the more optimistic companies say they’re getting very close. While we wait to take our first sky shuttle, we’re taking a look at the companies tussling for a piece of this burgeoning segment.
Uber’s VTOL taxis
Uber’s taxi project is one of the biggest in the VTOL industry. The company targets 2023 as the year its service will be available commercially, but we could see the first Uber Air taxis a little earlier via a pilot program.
Executives first turned their attention to air travel in 2016, and they accelerated the program during the second half of the 2010s. Uber hopes to start testing its technology in cities like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Dubai by the end of 2020. The prototypes it plans to build look like futuristic, scaled-down turbo-prop planes with a big difference: They will take off and land from massive sky ports scattered across the cities they serve. They won’t need a runway.
Each plane will be capable of reaching 150mph and will have a range of about 60 miles on non-reserve power when carrying one pilot and four passengers. The prototypes will be electric, and they’ll fly themselves, though the pilot will be able to take back control in emergency situations.
If it sounds like this will transform crowded cities, you’re absolutely right. Uber expects up to 1,000 landings per hour, so it’s tapping top architects to design densely-packed structures on plots of land as small as one acre.
Uber’s expansion is fascinating to watch because it sheds light on the challenges flying cars face before they take to the skies. For example, VTOLs don’t fly reliably in cities with extreme weather, so Uber will begin testing in regions with very mild conditions and little rain — sorry, Seattle. The company also needs to make friends in the real estate business and with decision-makers to set up sky ports in places where space is a luxury. These requirements add up quickly, and they illustrate how much work the 21st-century sky pioneers have ahead of them.
Slovakia-based AeroMobil remains committed to releasing a functioning flying car it calls “a supercar with superpowers.” It’s on its fourth prototype, so you know it’s not joking.
The company has plenty of concept art to show the car in its final form. It’s one of the more notable hybrid models in the works, and we’re not talking about a gasoline-electric powertrain. Unlike true VTOLs, hybrid flying cars are designed to take off from a runway, like a plane, but also have the ability to morph into a car-like vehicle to drive on the road. This system requires retractable wheels and wings, along with a very efficient drivetrain.
AeroMobil is funneling time and money into the development of an electric powertrain. It notably joined forces with organizations like Starburst, an aerospace accelerator, to help it reach its goal.
Project Vahana, from Airbus, seeks to create an electric VTOL aircraft that is entirely self-piloted. There are a lot of advantages to the self-piloting model. It can save costs when it comes to hiring and training pilots (who typically expect a higher salary than a taxi driver), and software engineers already have plenty of experience creating autopilot systems for larger planes that can be applied to these VTOLs. It’s also an ideal way to run a taxi service since the vehicles automatically return to centers for maintenance or take a different route based on current orders.
In early 2018, the Vahana prototype had its first successful full-scale flight test. It wasn’t much — the 20-foot aircraft simply rose 16 feet into the air and stayed there for 53 seconds. However, it did this entirely with the autopilot technology. Airbus has flown about 50 test flights since, and it said it was on track for a 2020 debut, but its plans might have changed — we’re still waiting for an update on this project.
Kitty Hawk’s flying prototype
We were looking forward to Kitty Hawk’s Flyer, and CEO Sebastian Thrun said it was “as easy to use as playing Minecraft,” but the project was axed in June 2020 because the company learned what it needed from it. The company is now focusing on a larger, winged aircraft named Heaviside with a 100-mile range and a 180mph top speed. It will be able to fly over cities, according to TechCrunch, but there’s no telling when we’ll see it in action.
The Volocopter 2X’s design is ambitious — and it looks really cool. Developed in Germany, it features 18 battery-powered rotors controlled via a single joystick. We’d say that the whole thing isn’t very practical, but the firm made a full-sized test model and ran it across the stage at CES 2018, thanks to a little sponsorship by Intel.
The 2X can carry two passengers. It has a flight time of 30 minutes and a range of 17 miles between charge centers. Intel’s work on the project includes complex tech, such as four independent sensor units to control positioning, nine different electric battery packs with built-in redundancies, and even a parachute stowed on top of the vehicle in case something goes wrong. It’s no wonder Volocopter is Dubai’s latest pick for its upcoming air taxi fleet (although city officials have dumped other prototypes in the past, so it’s not a guaranteed deal).
Volocopter showed off the 2X by taking it on a two-minute flight above Singapore in October 2019.
The SureFly is a robust VTOL aimed at commercial operators and consumers looking for a durable, self-controlled flying experience — and who don’t mind paying around $200,000 per unit. It was developed by Workhorse, but the company sold its aviation division to Moog for $4 million in November 2019 after multimillion-dollar losses.
Digital Trends understands the SureFly’s development continues. It has eight propellers and a top speed of 75mph. While, unlike other VTOLs, it operates on gasoline, and a battery pack will provide an extra 10 minutes of flying time, if necessary. The initial version will be able to carry about 400 pounds of cargo, although a more heavy-duty version capable of carrying up to 650 pounds is currently in development. Both have captured the American military’s attention.
The SureFly needs to be easy to operate. Just two controls are in the aircraft: A joystick to control direction and a throttle control on the pilot’s door.
Coming from Canadian firm Opener, the BlackFly is a highly-distinctive VTOL that combines personal piloting with a wealth of automatic features, including auto-landing and automated return home functions, thus enabling flight without the need for formal licensing (a popular trend, as you may have noticed). Despite the design, BlackFly flies via a familiar method. Eight drone-like rotors are positioned across two wings. Taking off, however, is a bit more unique, as the VTOL is made to rock back and forth to literally pick up momentum to launch upward. Specs allow for a lengthy 40-mile range at 72mph, although regulations limit those numbers substantially for those who want to fly their own aerial vehicles.
With retractable wings and wheels, the Transition is another hybrid model designed to be equally at home on the ground and in the skies. That’s not the only way that the Transition is a true hybrid model, however. It’s powered by a gasoline-electric hybrid drivetrain that features a boost mode for an extra burst of speed when flying. In the past, the Transition was expected to eventually sell at $280,000, but these days, the company is refraining from providing a list price.
It sounds a little bit like a pipe dream, but keep in mind that Terrafugia is now owned by Geely, a Chinese firm whose growing portfolio of brands includes Volvo, Lotus, Polestar, the London Taxi Company, a roughly 10% stake in Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler, and half of the Smart car brand. If anyone has pockets deep enough to build a flying car, it’s Geely.
When the Ehang 184 first showed up at CES, it seemed pretty impossible — a personal quadcopter VTOL that was fully automated, totally safe, completely comfortable, and powered via a basic touchscreen interface that anyone can use. Frankly, it all seemed like so much vaporware with a bunch of claims that couldn’t be substantiated. These days, Ehang is still making some pretty crazy claims. For example, it’s hard to believe the company has tested its model more than a thousand times in all types of situations (including gale-force winds, with 500 pounds of extra weight, and so on), as they claim — the only test footage available is decidedly more pedestrian. After all, this sort of thing has happened before.
However, other details give us reason to believe that some version of the Ehang 184 will go into operation. Ehang has specified that each taxi will have a command center that will automatically ground the flying car in poor weather conditions and that the models are primarily designed to fly in basic U-shapes from one port to another, which sounds much more in-line with what other prototypes are capable of.
On the other hand, Ehang filed for bankruptcy in May 2018. It called the move strategic, and the company is still in operation — it filed a $100 million IPO in November 2019 — but it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Joby Aviation air taxi
After spending years working on a personal aircraft, Joby Aviation recently received a massive cash infusion from the likes of Toyota and Intel that provides $100 million to create an electric air taxi. This model is interesting, because it’s larger than many projects (able to seat up to five), and while it is called a VTOL, the model appears to be based on a more traditional aircraft with multiple propellers, which raises a lot of questions about how it’ll work in practice.
Jaunt Aviation’s helicopter-airplane hybrid
Newcomer Jaunt Aviation teamed up with the Triumph Group to develop a flying taxi that looks like a cross between a helicopter and a plane. The company plans to address one of the main concerns associated with helicopters: Noise. Using proprietary technology, the aircraft reduces the speed of its main rotor while flying to remain relatively quiet.
Jaunt might not be a household name, but it’s one we’re watching. It has forged partnerships with some of the biggest companies in the business. Aviation Today reported that Honeywell will provide a navigation software, flight control technology, and an electric propulsion system, among other pieces of the puzzle. Uber has already named the company as one of its manufacturing partners for urban air mobility vehicles.
Porsche-Boeing flying taxi
Porsche and Boeing linked arms to explore whether there’s a market for flying taxis. The partners have their work cut out — they first need to figure out what luxury looks like in this burgeoning sector, and then determine how to deliver it profitably. International teams of engineers from both companies have started fine-tuning a concept previewed by a sketch of a sleek winged vehicle with a wrap-around windshield. The project is still in the embryonic stage, so the final design could very well change, but the firms imagine a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle that’s fully electric, stylish, and innovative. They’re working on a prototype that will be tested in 2020, Digital Trends learned.
Hyundai created a flying taxi division in September 2019. The company hasn’t released a prototype yet, but it hired NASA veteran Dr. Jaiwon Shin to spearhead its entry into the segment. His expertise in the fields of electrification and advanced air traffic control could give the South Korean company an edge as it tries to leap ahead of rivals.
“The new team at Hyundai will develop core technologies that will establish the company as a driving force in urban air mobility, a sector that is expected to grow into a market worth $1.5 trillion within the next 20 years,” the company wrote in a statement.
Aston Martin Volante Vision
Even Aston Martin wants in. In 2018, the British sports car manufacturer introduced a design study named Volante Vision that offered space for three passengers arranged in a triangular configuration. The company noted Rolls-Royce (the plane-maker, not the carmaker) provided the Volante Vision’s powertrain. Aston Martin also partnered with Cranfield University and Cranfield Aerospace Solutions to develop this concept. So far, Aston Martin has released some computer-generated images of the conceptual vehicle and mentioned a vertical take-off feature for this autonomous hybrid vehicle.
Rolls-Royce has two companies that operate under its name: One that manufactures luxury cars, and one that makes engines for planes. The former has yet to show any interest in the VTOL segment, but the plane engine portion released a concept in 2018 that is capable of carrying people, cargo, or both. The specifications sheet listed 500 miles of range and a 250mph top speed. These specs are possible thanks to a powertrain of gas turbines that generate electricity to feed to its electric motors.
Rolls-Royce explained the hardware and software necessary to make its VTOL possible either already exists or is under development. The original goal was to start transporting passengers in the early 2020s, but they haven’t said much about the project since. It’s worth noting that the firm teamed up with Bell in March 2019 to develop VTOL powertrains, which leaves hope for this project to become a reality.
Rolls-Royce also worked with Airbus to develop the propulsion system for the CityAirbus, a flying electric multicopter that is capable of carrying up to four passengers. The CityAirbus flew for the first time in December 2019 and could represent the beginning of a new era for the VTOL market.