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Flying taxis could take to the skies by next year. Here's why the aviation industry is so excited about eVTOLs.

Pete Syme   

Flying taxis could take to the skies by next year. Here's why the aviation industry is so excited about eVTOLs.
  • Flying-taxi companies hope to revolutionize the daily commute for the cost of an Uber.
  • Competition led to one lawsuit before it was settled and Archer and Wisk agreed to work together.
  • Nature inspires many of the futuristic designs, Frank Stephenson told BI.

Picture the scene: It's rush hour and you're running late for a meeting on the other side of town. If you're in a city with good public transportation, you could pile onto a busy metro train or you could get in a car or taxi and slog through traffic.

In a few years, if everything goes according to plan, you might be able to open an app to hail a non-polluting aircraft and avoid the ground congestion altogether.

This is the vision for Archer Aviation, one of several companies building electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, better known as eVTOLs or flying taxis.

It shouldn't cost much more than an Uber, either. Adam Goldstein, the CEO of Archer, previously told Business Insider he expects a seat in its six-passenger Midnight aircraft to cost about $100.

An Uber from Manhattan to Newark Airport costs $85 for a 40-minute drive. Archer says its Midnight flying taxi would need 10 minutes for the same journey, which the company plans to make its first commercial service in 2025.

BI attended the Dubai Airshow last month, where Goldstein started the sustainability conference with a speech about the company's ambitions.

"The transportation grid is still stuck in two dimensions. There's lots of trips out there where people are willing to spend 60, 90, or even 120 minutes in a car," he said. "Now we can solve these trips by going to the air."

Helicopters are the main alternative today, but they're expensive and many cities have banned their mass use due to noise complaints. Goldstein said that Archer's Midnight is "near silent when flying overhead."

Volocopter, a German startup set to bring its flying taxis to Saudi Arabia's planned megacity Neom, hopes to run its first service during next summer's Paris Olympics.

Most other eVTOL firms, including Archer, are targeting certification by 2025. Goldstein said Archer wants to start mass operations in 2028, when "hundreds" of flying taxis would operate in one city as Los Angeles transportation officials plan for their use during that year's Olympics.

Why the flying-taxi designs look unique

Frank Stephenson got his start designing cars. After Ford sponsored his design education, he worked for the company in Cologne, Germany. He also designed the Mini Cooper and the Fiat 500 and worked as a design director for Ferrari, Maserati, and McLaren.

His enthusiasm for aircraft was infectious as he spoke to BI at the Dubai Airshow. Midway through a sentence, the Italian Air Force's aerobatics team roaring overhead through plumes of red, white, and green smoke diverted his attention.

At first, pivoting to aviation might seem like a curious move, but for Stephenson, it made perfect sense.

"I think from as far back as I can remember, as a kid even, I was just interested in anything that moved," Stephenson told BI.

After leaving McLaren, Stephenson started his own design studio where his first client was Lilium Air Mobility.

These sleek, modern aircraft often appear as if they were plucked from the set of "Blade Runner," but for Stephenson, "everything I design is based on influences from nature."

"There's nothing more intelligent than nature in design," he told BI. "Who the heck says it has to look like an airplace anyways, because what's an airplane? It's a sausage with wings on it."

For Lilium, he was first inspired by the sea, because "a fish is theoretically more aerodynamic than a bird."

"The engineers were like, 'Oh my gosh, we've never thought about doing it like this before. And it works really well.' So that world opened up to me. It's like the first days of the automobile."

United Airlines has ordered $1 billion's worth of Archer's Midnight craft

"Once you can start replacing work-and-going-home trips with this aircraft, it's beyond my wildest imagination how you change where people live and work, and how much you can really impact mobility going forward," Nikhil Goel, Archer's chief commercial officer, told BI.

"Sustainability is big, but it's also just sexy," he added. "It's a really great way to get from A to B."

Goel, a former McKinsey consultant who cofounded Uber Elevate before joining Archer, has the polished air of a Silicon Valley executive.

"The best-case scenario is probably still more than I would expect," he said. "I always say that if you'd asked Steve Jobs, 'How many iPhones would you sell in 2023?' He would have predicted probably a tenth of what we have today.

"So best-case scenario, I don't know, everybody in the world is able to use this to go from A to B."

There's still a lot to get through first. After aviation authorities certify them, eVTOL companies would need to scale up manufacturing. Then comes the infrastructure: building enough vertiports — eVTOL takeoff facilities — for mass use.

Vertiports are similar to helipads but include recharging and hangaring options.

But the money involved suggests that airlines believe there's promise. American Airlines, United Airlines, and Azul Brazilian Airlines have each made $1 billion deals with Vertical Aerospace, Archer, and Lilium, respectively.

Goldstein said United's order with Archer has a further $500 million option, which would bring the total up to 300 aircraft.

"We are working with the best manufacturing suppliers in the game — Honeywell, Safran, Garmin, FACC — so we think from a certification perspective, we've nearly eliminated all the risks," Goel said.

He added that the biggest priority for the coming year is the "final stages of certification."

Archer has also started building its main manufacturing plant in Georgia, where it will work with the auto giant Stellantis to produce up to 2,300 aircraft a year. Archer added that the factory will be capable of producing 650 vehicles a year when it starts its first phase of operations in 2024.

"Already on day one, it will be less than half the cost of a helicopter," Goel told BI. Helicopters cost about $10 per passenger mile, whereas Goel said the Midnight will cost about $4 to $5 per passenger mile.

He said it's cheaper because there's "very little maintenance cost" and "it's 100% all electric so there's no fuel cost."

"As we increase the utilization and load factor, the aircraft will be at $2 to $3," he added. "And then from there, you add in autonomy, scale manufacturing, our long-term goal is to get about $1."

Self-flying taxis

Not every eVTOL company is prioritizing passenger transportation. AutoFlight, a Chinese startup with offices in Germany and California, is first targeting certification for its cargo eVTOL.

"Developing an aircraft is a really expensive adventure, and we believe the cargo version will be much quicker to certify, and produce and sell, and generate revenues," Jocelyn Moreau, AutoFlight Europe's head of operations, told BI.

"What we see here at the Dubai Airshow, and at the Paris Air Show, is that there will be a high demand for cargo as well as for passengers," he added.

Moreau, a former manager at Airbus Helicopters Deutschland GmbH, joined the eVTOL space because "it was the new revolution going on."

"With two colleagues of mine, we left Airbus to be part of the revolution, and try on our own an exciting adventure," he said.

Moreau told BI he expects AutoFlight's cargo eVTOL to be certified in China within six to 12 months, but that a passenger version could take another two or three years to get certified.

The emphasis on cargo also means AutoFlight is better positioned to explore self-flying-aircraft options.

"We are already flying autonomously with the cargo version," Moreau said. "There is no pilot, there's no cockpit. There's nothing."

"For the passenger version, we believe we need a pilot first," he added. "And maybe in a few years' time when people are used to flying, then there will be no pilot."

Goldstein said Archer is aiming for its aircraft to be fully autonomous in 2030. It's made progress after reaching an agreement with Wisk Aero, an eVTOL company owned by Boeing, following a two-year dispute.

Wisk accused Archer of stealing trade secrets in a 2021 lawsuit. The complaint alleged that Archer hired ten Wisk engineers and produced an aircraft with "a striking resemblance" to a Wisk patent. A forensic investigation found that two of those former Wisk engineers downloaded thousands of files shortly before leaving for Archer, according to the lawsuit.

In August, the rivals settled and agreed to work together. Wisk is now Archer's exclusive provider of autonomous-flying technology, and Boeing agreed to invest an undisclosed amount into Archer as part of a $215 million funding round.

In a press release, Archer said the agreement would help it avoid "hundreds of millions of dollars of spending" on research and development.

'You don't get tired of them — they just look right'

After Lilium, Stephenson also designed eVTOLs for Archer and AutoFlight, which he said is "probably the most effective design so far."

Unlike Archer's Midnight, AutoFlight's Prosperity I doesn't need the propellors to tilt — horizontal rotors take the aircraft up and down, and the ones on the back push it forward.

"The intention I always had from the beginning was: How simple can you reduce all the elements, and it doesn't look boring, it still looks futuristic?"

"It ends up looking beautiful because it's so functional when it does," Stephenson told BI. "There's nothing really ugly in nature — something might shock you, but it doesn't look wrong."

"The cars and the objects that are designed for efficient functionality tend to last a long time in terms of aesthetics. You don't get tired of them — they just look right."

"It's an incredibly interesting field to be in right now," he added. "30 years from now, I might sound stupid. But right now, we're breaking new ground."