The electric air taxi business—spurred along for years by Uber’s Elevate initiative and also known as flying cars—is flying into a cloudy unknown: The murky pall of the Covid-19 pandemic and its related, brutal economic downturn. Given how plummeting revenues and homebound consumers have gut punched the established airline and automotive industries, it’s easy to lose all hope for a newcomer that requires an especially long runway to take off.
For certain, some players chasing the urban aviation dream won’t last long. With 250 companies working in some capacity on the matter—from designing aircraft to developing propulsion, battery, and control systems—it was already inevitable that some wouldn’t reach the finish line. “A large percentage of them were destined to fail organically, and Covid will accelerate this thinning of the herd,” says Cyrus Sigari, who cofounded the UP series of air-taxi leadership summits. Even programs funded by major corporations like Boeing, Airbus, and some automakers may be in danger. “It’s likely that a lot of future-forward projects are either cut or postponed until the core businesses get back to a healthy place.”
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Uber, the ringleader of this movement, remains cautiously optimistic that eVTOL companies will ride out the downturn. Though some have declared they’ll start flying passengers as soon as this year or next, the ride-hail giant has stuck to its 2023 target for launching air taxi services in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne. That’s always been contingent on manufacturers successfully developing the aircraft and securing government certification, goals rendered trickier by Covid-19.
“The pandemic certainly affects some of our vehicle partners who, while working remotely, are unable to perform some R&D activities,” says Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate. “We are hopeful that we could potentially launch commercially by 2023, but we’re staying flexible.”
As for eVTOL efforts run by the big aerospace entities, none have shown any visible signs of faltering—yet. Airbus has indicated its continued commitment to its CityAirbus program, but analysts suspect Boeing, which is under a variety of financial pressures due to its 737 Max struggle, might have to divert funding away from its own programs, which include a collaboration with Larry Page–backed Kitty Hawk, called Wisk. Dallas-based helicopter manufacturer Bell has indicated it’s still advancing its Nexus aircraft. "The Nexus program has not been affected by Covid-19," the company said in a statement. "We’re continuing to test our technologies, making substantial progress, and are still tracking to our timeline." The company has a team of 70 working on the effort, and it expects it to start service in the second half of this decade, with a demonstrator aircraft debuting within a few years.
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Among smaller companies, those with secured funding and a range of business cases stand the best chance of survival, Sigari says. Joby Aviation, for instance, closed a $590 million round of investments in January, including cash from Toyota. And while the Santa Cruz, California–based startup is working on aircraft for civilian transportation, it’s also involved in the Department of Defense’s Agility Prime effort that launches this month. Same goes for Vermont-based Beta Technologies, which is due to reveal the final production version of its aircraft by June. Other manufacturers, including Chinese firm EHang, are developing cargo-carrying variants of their aircraft or going straight to cargo versions, such as Sabrewing Aircraft Company. Skipping putting people inside should make them easier and cheaper to certify than passenger-toting aircraft.
Beta’s primary investor, United Therapeutics, is interested in using eVTOL technology to deliver the manmade organs for human transplant that it’s developing. If that unusual game plan doesn’t pan out, its aircraft could be just as useful for moving people, commercial cargo, or military supplies. Beta’s also developing remote charging stations for electric aircraft of all sizes, all the way down to autonomous drones.
Clark says that investors in eVTOL technologies have always known that it’s a long-term proposition, and that that will help manage a downturn. “The returns that everybody in the industry are talking about are measured between three and 10 years, both to investors and customers.” For now, his team has pivoted to remote work, with many engineers setting up 3D printers at home for prototyping parts. “Humans are humans, and we're gonna get back to work and move things forward. Access to capital might be less than it was two months ago, but the capital still exists.”
Much of that money may be directed toward innovations that capitalize on the core usefulness of eVTOL technology, rather than the unproven market for urban air commuting. Amazon, FedEx, and UPS are accelerating their work to secure more flexible point-to-point delivery platforms, namely drones and smaller electric cargo aircraft, whether autonomous or human-piloted. The new dynamics of social distancing will bolster that shift, Sigari says, given that human contact can now be considered a health risk. Companies that develop the tech to enable increased drone use in public airspace—systems that would also be critical to autonomous passenger-carrying aircraft later on—will have a better chance of thriving as these various services progress.
The development of those collateral technologies and infrastructure will sustain the effort in the long term, says Uber’s Allison. His company is developing aerial ride-sharing and airspace management capabilities in-house, including the software that will power future air taxi services. It’s counting on the fact that the world will one day start moving around again—hopefully by car, too. Plus, if an aversion to the close proximity of hundreds of fellow travelers in big airplanes and giant hub airports ends up baked into our collective psyches, small electric alternatives could start looking awfully attractive.