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Electric VTOL – the Future of Personal Transport?

Our relationship with personal transport is changing. Electric VTOL vehicles are almost certain to be the next big thing in aviation; but why do we need them, and how will they change the way we travel?

Our relationship with personal transport is changing. Electric cars aren’t yet mainstream – but in five years time, with a blossoming second-hand market in full swing, that’ll be set to change. On the other hand, ownership and even leasing are fast becoming outdated models. Some experts are pinning the future of personal transport on readily-available ride hailing – and not just by road. Electric VTOL vehicles are almost certain to be the next big thing in aviation; but why do we need them, and how will they change the way we travel?

Why Do We Need eVTOL Vehicles?

Right now, there’s a significant push for electric vehicles. Every major vehicle manufacturer is releasing their own take on the platform and investigating the technology further. Since the advent of consumer drones, there’s been an effort to scale the technology up and make passenger-capable electric vehicles.

It’s a seemingly simple answer to the climate crisis; make bigger versions of drones that can be piloted or operate autonomously. Small, light eVTOL aircraft could also access many more places than fixed wing or rotor aircraft, so as cities become more densely populated and ground transport becomes gridlocked, a futuristic world of flying taxis isn’t too hard to imagine – but it could be a long way off.

Challenges and Developments

There are some huge hurdles to overcome, but some companies have risen to the challenge admirably. Discounting the unimaginable power generation required for a fleet of eVTOLs, you could argue that we’ve made the biggest technological leap already.

Drone maker Ehang extensively flight tested a passenger-capable drone in 2018, carrying out over 1,000 flights with human passengers in a variety of weather conditions and scenarios. The footage is impressive and the technology looks complete on the surface.

Dig a little deeper though, and the cracks start to appear; a flight time of just 23 minutes (or a 10 mile range), a payload of no more than 230kg, a parachute as a failsafe and ground-level rotors. There’s no word on the protocol for failure over a densely populated area at an altitude insufficient for a parachute to deploy.

And these are the challenges faced by every eVTOL developer; range, payload and safety. While initial tests and demonstrations were extremely impressive, Ehang hasn’t updated the progress of the 184 project in over a year and other players have since entered the space.

Lilium is one such contender. Their five-seat prototype took its first flight in 2019, to much-deserved fanfare. If the specs are to be believed, Jet will have a range of 300km at a speed of 300km/h. That’s very impressive, considering that this is one of the very first attempts at a multi-passenger, piloted eVTOL aircraft.

With a total of 36 electric engines, there’s redundancy baked into the design. However, there’s still a parachute failsafe, because despite having a fixed wing design, the Lilium Jet can’t glide.

So, while it’s certainly impressive, Lilium isn’t perfect – but no aircraft is. All aircraft fit a specific set of use cases, tuned to a particular scenario. The emerging eVTOLs we’re seeing today aren’t private jet replacements, but they could be counterparts. They’re novel for now – but with the way they’re being pitched, the vision is for them to be as common as taxis.

Aerial Ridesharing

Lilium and Ehang are investing deeply in the hardware and the software behind eVTOL. Another big name wants a piece of the pie, too. Uber is focusing on the service and deployment of the technology with Uber Air – which they’re pitching as “the future of transportation”. This is a future where nobody owns a car, and instead hails a ride for the price of a cup of coffee. A ride from anywhere to anywhere else in range, with no investment from the rider and zero fuel burned.

At least, that’s the long-term goal.

More immediately, Uber Air solves airport transfers that currently rely on helicopters, where the infrastructure and legislation for VTOL vehicles already exists – and crucially, where the demand is highest. A few major cities are already on board with the project, but there’s a lot of paperwork, testing and certification to get through before anything opens to the wider public.

Now that the tech has legs, so to speak, the future seems good for Uber Air. It’s quite difficult to see a benefit to anyone beyond Uber, though – a private company taking control of airspace in place of better integrated, high capacity public transit networks. While aerial ridesharing is likely to come to fruition, it’s also likely that the “cost of a cup of coffee” part of the deal won’t come around quickly, if at all.

Changing Air Charter

In the future, eVTOL will probably work more like ride hailing than air charter; very short trips in densely populated areas, targeted at commuters or small groups on a night out. They may encroach on helicopter charter, but the tech is currently too limited – specifically in payload and range terms – to challenge fixed wing, fuel-powered private jets.

So; is electric VTOL the future of personal transport? Yes, without a doubt. Even though the planet depends on it, the all-electric future is still a very long way from being realised.

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