1 October 2021

Forget the fuel crisis, the future of urban transport is airborne

By Martin Warner

Watching the fuel crisis unfold from New York, where I do a lot of my business, was an extraordinary experience. 

Motorists trading punches at petrol stations; queues trailing out of service areas on to motorway slip roads; people filling up jerry cans and drinking bottles with petrol – the UK looked like a 1970s fairytale come back to life.

But let me offer an alternative vison of the future – it might appear fanciful, the stuff of science fiction – but it will soon become reality. Those petrol station punch-ups will become a distant memory.

Flying cars will no longer be the preserve of sci-fi movies, they will be in the skies above us, using electric power to hover, take off and land vertically. And this will start to happen within the next three to five years.

In the next cycle of innovation, one of the biggest areas of investment will be the use of sub-2000ft airspace above and between cities, using battery-based eVTOL (electric Vertical, Take-Off and Landing) technology. 

The impact on our cities will be immense. Less traffic congestion on our streets, faster consumer travel and a big reduction in the carbon footprint of urban areas. Every major city in the world will adopt this mode of transportation to complement autonomous and semi-autonomous car travel and public transport networks.

Morgan Stanley predicts the passenger eVTOL market will be worth around $1.5 trillion by 2040, but many commentators believe that is an under-estimate. It has already attracted more than $2bn capital investment globally and new advances are being reported at a bewildering speed.

A British start-up, Urban-Air Port, has announced plans to build 200 urban-air ports worldwide in partnership with Hyundai Motor Group to meet demand for drones and electric air taxis. These will be compact, modular landing sites for eVTOL aircraft with charging and maintenance facilities, which will be hubs for passengers and connect with other forms of sustainable transport. 

More than 150 companies are currently developing air taxis. Over the next ten years, London could generate its own network of air taxi passenger routes, for example Heathrow to Charing Cross. One million passengers a year could be taken from airports to key neighbourhoods in the city, and from outer neighbourhood connection hubs to central London, operating up to 20 hours per day. As the network of routes expands, the cost will drop – an air taxi will cost no more than a higher end Uber fare.

The first generation eVTOL aircraft will be piloted with five passengers, like the YGS Plus, which has been successfully developed by my company, Autonomous Flight. Powered by lithium-ion batteries, it is being designed to reach cruise speeds of 125 mph and will have a range of 100 miles on a single charge. But later models will be fully autonomous.

In the last six months there have been significant developments, with increased government support in the UK and US. Regulatory hurdles are the main barrier to entry. Bringing a single electric aircraft to production costs tens of millions of pounds and securing certification is a four-stage process, with seven sub-stages, but the CAA in the UK and the FAA in the US are producing regulatory frameworks for eVTOLS. 

In the next couple of years, we will see the first test flights and studies of how rooftop terminals will work. In London, three roof stops are being incorporated into new developments, there are others in New York and Chicago, with Paris likely to follow suit.

In the US, four eVTOL companies – Archer, Joby, Lilium, and Vertical – have gone public and in February 2021 Archer Aviation announced a $1m order of more than 200 aircraft from United Airlines. In June 2021, Vertical Aerospace announced pre-orders for 1,000 eVTOLs, including from American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and aircraft lessor Avolon Holdings.

That is an indication of the scale of change that is under way and the speed at which is happening. So, anyone queuing to get into a petrol station can console themselves with the thought that the future of urban travel is electric and airborne. One day soon, fighting to fill up a jerry can will seem like a bad dream.

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Martin Warner is CEO of Autonomous Flight and founder of Entrepreneur Seminar.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.