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Flying car or big drone? eVTOLs are electric, compact, silent

Flying cars are arriving decades after making it in pop culture, or so we’ve been told, though this time, it could be real (as it has been falsely confirmed for the hydrogen car adoption over the years).

Like hydrogen cars, flying cars also work and could, in theory, be mass-produced. In 2021, German aircraft startup Volocopter conducted its first crewed flight on an “electric vertical take-off and landing” (eVTOL), and Chinese company eHang had been testing its models years prior.

eVTOL: a variety of VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft that uses electric power to hover, take off, and land vertically

One thing is already clear: they don’t look like conventional cars, nor aim at defying basic proportional and aerodynamic rules that didn’t apply to the Jetsons nuclear cars (one eVTOL startup has taken the name Jetson, ditched the nuclear part, an obsession of another era in which Ford unveiled its Nucleon prototype), nor to Back to the Future’s DeLorean Time Machine, nor their cyberpunk counterparts.

The nascent sector has yet to find one type of service that could drive demand and, if approved by commercial aviation regulations, could transform short-distance travel in areas challenged by orographic traffic barriers.

Smartphones to drones, to air taxis?

Innovation propels new industries, creating ecosystems in which other sectors can flourish. The smartphone accelerated the evolution of several components, such as denser lithium-ion batteries, smaller & more powerful processors, better and more resistant displays, and accelerometers.

Smartphones’ software and hardware evolution changed the fortunes of former sector giants (Nokia, Blackberry) and paved the current Android-iOS split of a gigantic market. Not even Steve Jobs envisioned that app stores would turn out to be an even bigger industry, and, in hardware, smartphones would facilitate the mass production of consumer unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones), now a market that surpassed the $21 billion mark in 2021. 

The relationship between the rise of smartphones and consumer drones explains how new sectors are nurtured out of adjacent technologies as they are commoditized and become affordable enough to experiment with them.

The incremental race to improve smartphones, now reaching stagnation, had an impact not just on drones but also on cameras and consumer robotics such as gimbals. And once smaller, more reliable drones have proven their soundness thanks to better sensors, batteries, processing, and software while shrinking their weight, other adjacent industries could benefit from this evolution.

What could come out of better drones and more reliable drones, better robotics, denser electric batteries, and the electric car industry’s push for advanced driver-assistance systems, including “self-driving” capabilities? Several companies believe we are finally ready to combine such evolution of intermingled sectors with flying simulation and autopilot software to converge in a new sector with growing potential: eVTOL aircrafts, also known as flying taxis due to the main application the new aircraft has been envisioned for.

Fly commuting dreams

A Chinese company, eHang, calls its eVTOL an “autonomous aerial vehicle,” or AAV, and made autopilot its main advantage. EHang had already demonstrated its “drone taxi” service before the pandemic but has yet to obtain full certification to operate commercially in China. The company argues that the enduring pandemic lockdowns in China have hampered its ability to engage with the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).

Unlike consumer drones, eVTOL vehicles’ goal is to transport easily —and comfortably— one or a few individuals between close by places with challenging mobility due to traffic, density, or geographical barriers such as rivers, canyons, etc. Flying taxis take-off and land vertically just like helicopters, thanks to several helixes, then fly with the efficiency of small airplanes once in the air.

One thing already clear: so-called “flying cars” don’t look like cars

eVTOLs biggest challenge so far has been the density and weight of electric batteries, so engines don’t have to grow in power accordingly. The amount of electric power needed to hover, take-off, and land vertically has limited their design and dictated the shape of air taxis, resembling more giant drones or tiny futuristic helicopters than the eternal promise of conventional-looking cars capable of flying when necessary. Or, as The Economist titled one of its articles on the topic on May 30, 2019, “Flying cars are almost here, but they don’t look like cars.”

As batteries improve their energy and weight ratio and engines combine drone and electric cars drivetrains, flying taxis are sprinting towards their potential prime time. Will the several experimental models materialize, some of whom are backed by airlines and corporate aircraft companies, or will this new type of aircraft falter as an ever-promising vehicle that never reaches commercial momentum, such as the eternally promised (and unveiled) hydrogen car?

Combined with easy navigation mainly guided by autopilot capabilities, eVTOLs could keep the main advantages of small aircraft and improve several of their disadvantages: unlike corporate small airplanes and jets, eVTOLs are electric and can hover vertically to take-off and land with precision in small areas.

How noisy would a world of flying cars be?

And, unlike helicopters, eVTOLs are designed for cruising at around 2,000 feet (600 meters), just like small helicopters, though they promise to be 1,000 times quieter than helicopters. Air taxi engineers ensure that ground-level noise reaches only 45 A-weighted decibels once hovering at cruising altitude.

NASA acoustic testing confirms such noise levels in one eVTOL that is reaching its final stage of development before seeking certification approval for commercial use. Santa Cruz, California-based Joby Aviation has tested extensively its S4 prototype, flown over NASA’s Mobile Acoustics Facility to simulate a future in which skies in urban areas could sustain heavy eVTOL traffic.

When the S4 flies overhead at an airspeed of 100 knots (around 115 miles per hour, or 185 kmh) and an altitude of 500 meters, or 1,640 feet, perceived noise on the ground reaches 45.2 dBA, somewhere between a noisy home appliance and rainfall on a decibel chart. During take-off and landing, noise levels are much higher; measured at 100 meters from the “vertipad” (landing place), noise can surpass 65 dBA, levels still tolerable, equaling a toilet flush or a vacuum cleaner.

Joby Aviation has applied for certification to start operations as flying taxi

The noise level will be much higher during take-off and landing, given the higher friction eVTOLs will face compared to small consumer drones such as the DJI Phantom 4 Pro 2.0, which emits 76.5 decibels. Any drone user would confirm that even small drones are loud enough to considerably increase air pollution at ground level in quiet environments: a 65-dBA take-off at a moderate distance could equal the noise of heavy fast traffic passing by the road at 80 kmh (50 mph) while we are on the sidewalk.

According to JoeBen Bevirt, founder and CEO of Joby, the company’s eVTOL is quiet enough to be compatible with residential quality of life: hundreds of them flying overpopulated areas would add a small increment to an overall noise some consider already concerning.

Feeling safe aboard a giant drone

Noise and safety (both real and perceived) could therefore be perceived as a deal breaker in eVTOL adoption. Other modern locomotion systems, from trains to automobiles to the first commercial aircraft, experience rates of accidents and casualties not tolerable by today’s standards. This reality didn’t deter such transportation systems from reaching the masses. As for efficiency, 

Several first-stage companies and subsidiaries of established aircraft companies compete with California-based Joby Aviation in the new field of electric air taxis: among others, Archer Aviation in Palo Alto, California and Beta Technologies from Burlington, Vermont; Lilium and Volocopter in Germany; Embraer’s (third largest producer of civil aircraft after Airbus and Boeing) eVTOL subsidiary and Eve Urban Air Mobility from Brazil; BAE Systems and Vertical Aerospace in UK; or Ascendance Flight from France.

Airbus and Boeing, the two biggest passenger aircraft manufacturers, unveiled their own flying cars with autonomous navigation powered by a Lidar system, cameras, and radar, in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The programs developing Airbus Vahana and Boeing PAV (Passenger Air Vehicle) were closed in 2019. In Boeing, the program’s termination was a response to the economic impact of the 737 MAX grounding, as well as the impact in aviation of the coronavirus pandemic.

Existing battery technology has improved to the point of reaching ranges that would allow traveling short distances with enough energy to accommodate any potential contingency: Joby’s S4 prototype’s range goes up to 150 miles (240 kilometers) of autonomy in ideal conditions, which could improve or diminish depending on weather and wind conditions, cruising at speeds up to 200 mph (or 322 kmh), a speed comparable with that of fast trains in Europe and Asia.

eVTOLs or the need for new aircraft certification rules

Several companies are backing Joby’s bet on its tilt-rotor electric vertical take-off and landing technology to make a cruise flight in between two precise and small docking areas a commercial reality short term. Toyota Ventures backed the company in 2017; later, Toyota Motor Corporation proper invested $350 million in a Series C round. And in December 2020, Joby acquired Uber flying car program, Uber Elevate, as a part of a $75 million investment by Uber in the air taxi startup, bringing the total investment to $125 million.    

Toyota also agreed to share internal know-how, from production scalability to parts’ design and driving experience to drive down cost and prices through eventual economies of scale (at a potential price tag of $92,000, Joby’s eVTOL is more affordable than other announced models, though still prohibitive for prime time standards).

Small electric aircraft for short-haul travel could find their demand among those already using noisier, more dangerous and polluting helicopters as air taxis

The coronavirus pandemic halted the development of eVTOL cars, some of whom had already been in stand-by or semi-stealth mode for years, at least in some cases to protect intellectual property, while lack of investment had been the main cause in most projects. Joby is the first company that could submit an eVTOL for commercial approval, which will first need to comply with a safety certification issued by US aviation regulators, Alan Levin explains in Bloomberg.

Joby’s demand to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has prompted the organism’s official publication of the requirements for a new type of electric aircraft, advancing eVTOL general criteria for certification. The document, titled “Airworthiness Criteria: Special Class for the Joby Aero, Inc. Model JAS4-1 Powered-lift,” went public on November 8, 2022. The document specifies what these vehicles will need to get agency approval.

Take-off and land vertically, fly horizontally

Joby’s candidate for commercial use, the JAS4-1 (based on the company’s mentioned prototype) is a 4-passenger “craft” that has little in common with automobiles. After confirming it will be the first air car company going through the process for certification, the company can focus on the agreement with Delta announced on October 11 in which the airline will invest $60 million in Joby (“with a total investment of up to $200 million possible as further milestones are achieved”) to fly people from dedicated places near the city center to airports in New York and Los Angeles. Delta’s announcement arrives months after a similar partnership agreement between Joby and All Nippon Airways (ANA) to use the all-electric five-seat aircraft to create a short-haul air taxi network in Osaka, the third largest city in Japan after Tokyo and Yokohama.

Delta sees all-electric, vertical take-off and landing aircraft as one niche product for people avoiding public transportation or sitting in traffic on their way into and from the airport. The perceived viability of a potential new sector relies on the success of experimental use such as Delta’s envisioned “fast, quiet, sustainable, city-to-transport service by air.”

Delta’s press release hints at the eventual FAA certification, stating that the S4 prototype and its commercial evolution have flown more than 1,000 test flights to confirm safety, range, speed, altitude, and low noise profile.

On January 26, 2020, nine people died in a Los Angeles helicopter crash as the aircraft’s pilot lost his sense of orientation after entering low cloud cover. The passengers’ high profile, including Kobe Bryant and his teenage daughter, brought to attention the risk of helicopter short-haul trips used by executives and celebrities to avoid traffic between local airports and their residences. Air taxis aim to reduce such services’ impact and noise while improving safety with sensors and assisted technology.

Dance of tilt-propellers

One of the Google autocomplete predictions on its search bar concerning Joby Aviation asks whether the company is Chinese, a question associated with the fact that the drone industry, pioneered by the military industry, then several American and European companies as a consumer product, is overwhelmingly dominated by Chinese companies: DJI controls three-quarters of the market alone, with the also Chinese Yuneec in a far second position. The market share of American and European companies is testimonial beyond the use of software by US Robotics and recreational drones by French company Parrot.

Founded in 2009, Joby’s offices are split between the company’s headquarters in Santa Cruz, California, San Carlos, and Marina, also in California, as well as Washington DC and Munich, Germany. The current factory is in Marina, California.

Several companies, including Joby Aviation, see their eventual eVTOL approval for commercial use as one opportunity for democratizing aerial transportation, as the new aircrafts wouldn’t require the expertise of flying airplanes or helicopters but a simpler, user-oriented navigation experience.

Joby has invested heavily in verification and testing software, first collaborating with software company Avionyx in 2021, then finally acquiring it in 2022. In February 2022, a Joby Aero prototype crashed near the Monterey County, California village of Jolon, later investigated by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

As air taxis get ready for commercial use, popular culture will decide whether the new aircraft segment is referred to as manned drones, passenger drones, air taxis, or “flying cars.”

With its 6 high-performance electric motors, 6 tilt-propellers, a small fuselage made of light composite, a wingspan of 35 feet (10.7 meters), and weighting 4,000 pounds (1,815 kilograms), Joby’s eVTOL resembles more a gigantic drone than a car.