July 31, 2023 By Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press
MONTREAL — From his suite on the 23rd floor of the Fairmont Dubai, Fethi Chebil surveys the luxury cars and driverless metro line unfurling to the horizon.
“I can see the future,” says the Quebec-based CEO and founder of VPorts, which designs terminals for flying taxis.
Chebil is referring with a wink to Dubai’s Museum of the Future, but he might just as well be describing the mode of transport he envisions high above the roads and rails of the desert city and beyond: flying cars.
Air taxis, long hyped as the next giant leap in short-haul passenger transport, are coming closer to a vertiport near you — even as skepticism deepens over their ability to change commuter behaviour and emissions output, and overcome questions of safety, both real and perceived.
Electric air taxis can start plying the skies by 2028, according to a regulatory timeline laid out by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration this month. Some manufacturers have 2025 as their target, such as Silicon Valley’s Archer Aviation and Joby Aviation.
No longer confined to the silver screen in classics as far back as 1927’s Metropolis, aerial ferries now take form and flight in more than 700 prototypes and designs for electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOLs) by some 350 companies, according to the Vertical Flight Society.
The whirly machines carry the promise of delivering people and goods across congested urban and suburban areas and between nearby cities. But headwinds around technology, regulation and investment remain, with Canada lagging behind some of its peers on policy. And whether aerial vehicles can move beyond a sleek slice of the ultrarich and medical and cargo niches in the near term seems increasingly questionable.
Most eVTOLs resemble an oversized drone, sporting a halo of small rotors around a passenger pod — some sporting wings — and taking off and touching down like a helicopter. Drawing on lithium-ion batteries, they are cleaner, quieter and — eventually — cheaper to fly and maintain than a jet fuel-powered chopper.
But while a slew of eVTOLs have undergone limited testing, only a half-dozen or so companies have furnished air taxi models now taking part in advanced, regular flights tests, according to Chebil. They typically carry between one and five passengers with a battery life that can reach up to 250 kilometres.
Despite a spending dip, the sector is abuzz with orders and investment.
In a six-month period last year, more than 80 companies placed orders for nearly 8,000 aircraft categorized as advanced air mobility — mainly air taxis — according to aviation data firm Cirium.
United Airlines and American Airlines are among the biggest would-be customers, ordering hundreds of the hovering haulers. Meanwhile Stellantis, Toyota and other car companies keen on electric models are partnering with air taxi makers on manufacturing.
Money raised for eVTOL development amounted to US$2.5 billion in the first half of 2023, up 15 per cent from the first six months of 2022 — though far below 2021, when at least five manufacturers went public — according to an analysis from McKinsey & Company.
“We’re now at the beginning of a valley and trough phase,” said JR Hammond, executive director of the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility Consortium.
No manufacturers with the venture-capital heft of the sector’s top players count Canada as home. The industry here remains “nascent,” Hammond said, but noted it has attracted U.S. operators looking to tap into the country’s aeronautics clusters. Dallas-based Jaunt Air Mobility intends to shift nearly the entire operation to the Montreal area, said Eric Cote, CEO of its Canadian operation.
Where’s it all leading?
Some experts see the first wave of aerial taxis providing a shuttle service between major airports and downtown vertiports that integrate into the mass transportation system, rather than leapfrogging from block to block or hovering from balcony to bar and back — a hub-to-hub travel option akin to a monorail, but smaller scale and more expensive.
To date, no company has been certified to pick up passengers in an air taxi or other eVTOL.
That’s partly because of technological hitches. These revolve around concerns over both reserve battery power and a “vortex ring state” — a sci-fi-esque term for a very real phenomenon that can occur when rotor-based aircraft get caught up in their own turbulence, resulting in a drastic loss of lift.
“No company’s going to agree to purchase an uncertified, unproven aircraft,” said Nigel Waterhouse, president of the Can-Am Aerospace consulting firm. “And if they fail in their certification path, then all bets are off for any order that is placed.”
Regulatory progress also remains sluggish.
“Certification of something that does not exist — that has no historical data — is a challenge,” Cote said.
Canada lags behind its counterparts in the U.S. and European Union, whose aviation safety agency last year laid out proposed rules governing the operation of air taxis.
“Transport Canada does not have ready-made standards for eVTOL aircraft,” spokesman Hicham Ayoun said in an email. However, it can certify emerging technologies that have outgrown the rulebook via a “special condition” of airworthiness, he added.
Cost remains another hurdle.
Cote pegs the retail price of one of Jaunt’s air taxis at around US$2.4 million, while others estimate the price tag of eVTOLs will hover between US$2 million and US$5 million — more than your average Uber car, and slightly above most helicopters.
The cost of vertiports — complete with conveyor belts, charging stations and hangars — marks another obstacle, said Chebil, whose Mirabel, Que.-based company aims to begin construction on a Dubai vertiport next year.
Regional trips between nearby cities or for medical care or tourist flights will be more feasible — financially and regulatorily — he said.
Nonetheless, on the urban front, Germany’s Volocopter revealed in June five eVTOL routes planned to launch in time for the Paris Olympics in July 2024, mostly centred around a pair of airports and a heliport in the city’s most populous arrondissement.
But anything close to common use might cloud the city skies with rotor-bladed, carbon-fibred jumbo flies, rendering the urban air concept a flight of fancy — at least for now.
“Eventually for these things to run like we would imagine, a.k.a. Blade Runner, there’s going to have to be allocated corridors for these things, with separation and nothing below them,” said Waterhouse.
That prospect also raises the question of broader acceptance.
A McKinsey survey in 2021 found that 15 to 20 per cent of respondents could imagine switching to a flying taxi service down the line. The same year, a report from KPMG measuring countries’ readiness for air taxis ranked Canada 10th out of 25, in part due to its eager indulgence of the futuristic concept.
“We expect public awareness and perception will only grow stronger as crewed aircraft testing in certification-intent aircraft commences,” said analyst Savanthi Syth of Raymond James in a research note this month.
“People need to see, touch and feel what it’s going to be like,” said Cote. “I was in Paris a few weeks ago, and Volocopter flew a demonstrator aircraft — which is only a two seater, but still, it flew. And you could see the reaction from the audience,” he recalled.
“They all said, `OK, it’s coming.”’
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