The electric air taxi business—spurred along for years by Uber’s Elevate initiative and also known as flying cars—is flying into a cloudy unknown: The murky pall of the Covid-19 pandemic and its related, brutal economic downturn. Given how plummeting revenues and homebound consumers have gut punched the established airline and automotive industries, it’s easy to lose all hope for a newcomer that requires an especially long runway to take off.
For certain, some players chasing the urban aviation dream won’t last long. With 250 companies working in some capacity on the matter—from designing aircraft to developing propulsion, battery, and control systems—it was already inevitable that some wouldn’t reach the finish line. “A large percentage of them were destined to fail organically, and Covid will accelerate this thinning of the herd,” says Cyrus Sigari, who cofounded the UP series of air-taxi leadership summits. Even programs funded by major corporations like Boeing, Airbus, and some automakers may be in danger. “It’s likely that a lot of future-forward projects are either cut or postponed until the core businesses get back to a healthy place.”
Uber, the ringleader of this movement, remains cautiously optimistic that eVTOL companies will ride out the downturn. Though some have declared they’ll start flying passengers as soon as this year or next, the ride-hail giant has stuck to its 2023 target for launching air taxi services in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne. That’s always been contingent on manufacturers successfully developing the aircraft and securing government certification, goals rendered trickier by Covid-19.
“The pandemic certainly affects some of our vehicle partners who, while working remotely, are unable to perform some R&D activities,” says Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate. “We are hopeful that we could potentially launch commercially by 2023, but we’re staying flexible.”
As for eVTOL efforts run by the big aerospace entities, none have shown any visible signs of faltering—yet. Airbus has indicated its continued commitment to its CityAirbus program, but analysts suspect Boeing, which is under a variety of financial pressures due to its 737 Max struggle, might have to divert funding away from its own programs, which include a collaboration with Larry Page–backed Kitty Hawk, called Wisk. Dallas-based helicopter manufacturer Bell has indicated it’s still advancing its Nexus aircraft. “The Nexus program has not been affected by Covid-19,” the company said in a statement. “We’re continuing to test our technologies, making substantial progress, and are still tracking to our timeline.” The company has a team of 70 working on the effort, and it expects it to start service in the second half of this decade, with a demonstrator aircraft debuting within a few years.
Among smaller companies, those with secured funding and a range of business cases stand the best chance of survival, Sigari says. Joby Aviation, for instance, closed a $590 million round of investments in January, including cash from Toyota. And while the Santa Cruz, California–based startup is working on aircraft for civilian transportation, it’s also involved in the Department of Defense’s Agility Prime effort that launches this month. Same goes for Vermont-based Beta Technologies, which is due to reveal the final production version of its aircraft by June. Other manufacturers, including Chinese firm EHang, are developing cargo-carrying variants of their aircraft or going straight to cargo versions, such as Sabrewing Aircraft Company. Skipping putting people inside should make them easier and cheaper to certify than passenger-toting aircraft.
Beta’s primary investor, United Therapeutics, is interested in using eVTOL technology to deliver the manmade organs for human transplant that it’s developing. If that unusual game plan doesn’t pan out, its aircraft could be just as useful for moving people, commercial cargo, or military supplies. Beta’s also developing remote charging stations for electric aircraft of all sizes, all the way down to autonomous drones.