SANTIAGO “Imagine taking a taxi—a flying taxi—to get to work. It sounds like science fiction like The Jetsonsthe 1962 cartoon series set in 2062, but it could come to life sooner than we or the filmmakers imagined.
Flying vehicles or eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) had their best year in a decade in 2021 as investor interest surged to $7 billion in investment. For Latin America in particular, they could be an opportunity to transform transport and mobility in its congested cities.
Part of the investment went towards founding the Vertical Flight Society (VFS), a non-profit organization to promote flying cars. VFS estimates that there has been $10 billion in investment in flying vehicles between 2010 and 2020, well above the $4 billion initially projected. Some of the surprising interest is due to the hope that flying cars will be considerably cleaner, greener and cheaper than the helicopter, currently the choice of an exclusive minority for traveling short distances.
The future is in the air
The market is potentially large and investment banks expect it to be worth trillions of dollars over the next decade. Its growth projections are of interest to aircraft manufacturers and ordinary investors, as well as certain airlines, explains Alberto Torrijos, aeronautical partner at Deloitte Spanish Latin America. There is a need for new types of mobility, he says, that will energize this disruptive technology.
A January 2022 VFS report indicates that 600 eVTOL models are under development by 350 companies worldwide, with 200 new designs starting in 2021. Carlos Ozores, aviation specialist and deputy director of consultancy firm ICF, says these are the early days. The models “are prototypes, without tested and certified products… and without gains in sight”. Flying vehicles are therefore not destined to become a mass mobility solution, for which they should first achieve economies of scale through mass use. Aviation consultant Rene Armas Maes says the vehicles can first be used in cargo shipments, at airports and even to move donor organs.
More optimistic, management consultants LEK Consulting believe that 50% of taxi journeys over 15 kilometers could be made in flying vehicles by 2040.
Among the companies working on prototypes is the German company Lilium
Race to go up first
Interested planners include Boeing, Airbus and Brazil’s Embraer. Boeing is perhaps the most innovative here, working with the firm Wisk on an unmanned vehicle, while Airbus has its concept of a “multicopter” or four-seat vehicle which it hopes to test in 2023. Embraer is designing its own model , which it hopes to fly by 2026. It already has non-binding orders for 1,735 vehicles from 17 customers, according to its website.
Californian firm Joby Aviation developed a vehicle that could travel at 330 km/h during tests in January 2022, but the prototype crashed in February. Other companies working on prototypes are the American Archer Aviation, the German Lilium and the British Vertical Aerospace.
In Latin America, the only airlines currently placing orders or announcing investments are Azul Linhas Aéreas Brasileiras and Gol Linhas Aéreas. The former has signed a billion dollar order with Lilium for 220 six-seater eVTOLs to be delivered in 2025. The latter plans to receive 250 vehicles from Vertical Aerospace under an agreement signed with an Irish aircraft leasing company. Avolon planes.
São Paulo would be an ideal market, both in terms of population density and road traffic
Armas Maes sees airlines’ interest in providing a new product and maximizing revenue per passenger, although he says eVTOLs will likely initially only be used for transfers to airlines’ own terminals aerial. Deloitte’s Alberto Torrijos adds that currently interest is mainly coming from airlines with a large business clientele, although the services could then extend to carpooling, executive transfers within cities or even deliveries.
Ozores says offering an “air taxi service” is currently too complicated and expensive for standard airlines, given the uncertainties already affecting their core business. Perhaps that’s why few regional airlines are interested in it. Latam Airlines has no “tangible” plans to enter the industry anytime soon, CEO Roberto Alvo told Aeronaves.com recently.
Beyond the major airlines, Brazil’s Flapper, which offers regional charter flights, recently expressed interest in providing flying taxi service in cities like Bogotá, Mexico City, Santiago de Chile and São Paulo. It has teamed up with the American company Jaunt Air Mobility and will buy 25 EVTOLs, although it has not yet specified when it will start carrying passengers.
A regional market
Latin America is the land of helicopters. It is one of the largest markets for the vehicle and has six of the 10 largest urban helicopter fleets in the world. It also has large conurbations like Mexico City and São Paulo that need better, smooth and sustainable transportation.
São Paulo, a city of some 13 million inhabitants, would be an ideal market for flying vehicles, both in terms of its population density and its road traffic. It already has the largest fleet of helicopter taxis in the world with an average of 1,200 flights per day, according to consultants Cowen Inc.
Flying cars will be as innovative as jet planes were in the 1940s
Avolon is therefore targeting São Paulo and no other regional city for its flying taxi service plans. KPMG’s report on “Aviation 2030: Air Taxi Readiness Index” revealed that Brazil was the only country in the region remotely ready for such vehicles in terms of social and technical conditions, although it still lags far behind countries like the United States or European states.
The request will remove the obstacles
For flying cars to take off, they must first overcome some basic hurdles like regulation, safe and efficient technology, service infrastructure and where to put them in cities. In Latin America, “every country has different levels of maturity in this race,” says Torrijos. Ultimately, he thinks the application will remove the barriers, although the regulations may be the most complicated part, especially in countries that are already restrictive with drones.
Other upcoming issues will be “space management”, or traffic controls as density increases, and energy consumption. Battery storage capacities are another challenge, says Torrijos.
The vehicles will also require drivers, possibly 60,000 by 2028, according to consultants McKinsey and Co. Whatever the hurdles, several manufacturers are already testing models and the industry is seeking a regulatory framework for carrying passengers d here two or three years. Flying cars will be as innovative as jet planes were in the 1940s. The good news for operators is that once the market hits, the sky is the limit.
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