Why fly­ing cars are no longer a flight of fan­tasy

Covid has hurt the air­line sec­tor but ac­cel­er­ated a rev­o­lu­tion in the skies, writes Harry de Quet­teville

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business -

Pow­ered flight has been the stuff of dreams since Icarus, and the stuff of re­al­ity since the Wright Broth­ers took off in 1903 and trav­elled 120 feet. A mere 66 years later, man was on the moon, 239,000 miles away.

Ad­vances in the half-cen­tury since have been mod­est by com­par­i­son, how­ever, and we have not been back to the moon since 1972.

Now, though, air travel might be en­ter­ing an­other grav­ity-de­fy­ing in­no­va­tion ex­plo­sion. The seeds of change are be­ing sown by de­struc­tion of busi­ness-as-usual. Covid has seen global air pas­sen­ger traf­fic col­lapse, down 91pc in May com­pared to a year ear­lier; it is not ex­pected to re­cover un­til 2024. Many air­lines are not ex­pected to sur­vive to see that.

As the old model is shat­tered, a host of en­trepreneur­s are reimag­in­ing air travel as we know it.

Air taxis

We have been wait­ing for fly­ing cars since The Jet­sons aired in 1962. Now a swarm of them have ap­peared, cham­pi­oning mul­ti­ple meth­ods of get­ting air­borne, from fixed wing to drone-like quad­copter. Two of the big names in the sec­tor – Joby and Lil­ium – have just raised £437m and £178m re­spec­tively. Joby’s four-seater air­craft opts for six ro­tors; Lil­ium’s five-seater jet uses 36 mo­tors built into a hinged wing: both are fully elec­tric, and al­low Ver­ti­cal Take off and Land­ing.

Es­sen­tially, th­ese are he­li­copter re­place­ments. But there are two im­me­di­ate ad­van­tages: on fuel, bat­ter­ies will lead to sav­ings; on safety, mul­ti­ple mo­tors build in re­dun­dancy over the he­li­copter’s sin­gle ro­tor, avoid­ing con­stant checks. Longer term, au­ton­omy means no pilot, cut­ting costs still fur­ther – down in the near term, com­pa­nies hope, to £2-£3 per mile. Ul­ti­mately, Uber hopes that at scale fly­ing cars can hit less than £1.50 per mile – cheaper even than its shared ve­hi­cles on the ground.

As on the ground, Uber will not build those ve­hi­cles, in­stead pro­vid­ing sup­port to de­vel­op­ers. No won­der Joby, one of its part­ners, in­sists that its ve­hi­cles are the mass trans­porta­tion of the fu­ture. And no won­der the big­gest sin­gle in­vestor in its $590m (£437m) fund­ing round this year, spend­ing $394m, was the world’s big­gest car firm, Toy­ota, look­ing per­haps for a best­selling run­about of the 2040s.

But there are still ma­jor hur­dles. While pro­to­type air taxis look ever more ready, reg­u­la­tion and in­fra­struc­ture are cer­tainly not.

None­the­less, a whole in­dus­try is emerg­ing to build in­fra­struc­ture such as land­ing pads for so-called Ur­ban Air Mo­bil­ity ve­hi­cles. Lon­don-based Sky­ports de­signs and op­er­ates the “ver­ti­ports’’ needed for VTOL elec­tric air taxis. It too has been sub­ject to in­vest­ment from tra­di­tional trans­port op­er­a­tors – in its case Ger­man rail ti­tan Deutsche Bahn.

“Our train sta­tions al­ready con­nect dif­fer­ent modes of pub­lic and pri­vate trans­porta­tion,” Boris Kuehn, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Deutsche Bahn Dig­i­tal Ven­tures, said this month. “We are cur­rently in the process of as­sess­ing the fea­si­bil­ity of in­te­grat­ing ver­ti­ports in our train sta­tions.”

The re­al­ity is that de­vel­op­ing new air­craft, even mod­est city-hop­pers, is ex­pen­sive. Most air-taxi com­pa­nies are burn­ing through cash. Few will sur­vive, but those that do will be in pole po­si­tion to cap­i­talise on a huge new mar­ket.

To­day an­nual spend­ing on ground­based and he­li­copter trans­port is es­ti­mated to be worth about $1.1 tril­lion. Hyundai, launch­ing its own air taxi divi­sion a year ago, sug­gested UAMs will be worth $1.5 tril­lion within 20 years.

Elec­tric dreams

Jet fuel is ex­pen­sive and con­trib­utes to the air in­dus­try’s rep­u­ta­tion as a pol­luter (es­ti­mates sug­gest the avi­a­tion in­dus­try ac­counts for about 2pc of global CO2 emis­sions). No won­der small is now beau­ti­ful. Even be­fore Covid, air­lines were mov­ing away from huge, wide body air­craft to­wards small, fuel ef­fi­cient point-to­point planes like the Air­bus A321­neo and the ill-fated Boe­ing 737 Max. The huge 747 and Air­bus A380 are be­ing moth­balled. In­creas­ingly, nar­row body air­craft are do­ing the long haul.

That in­tense fo­cus on fuel cost and emis­sions is good news for short-haul elec­tric air­craft. In a stan­dard year, half of the world’s 4bn flights are sub-500 mile jour­neys. Elec­tric mo­tors pro­vide a 75pc re­duc­tion in CO2 emis­sion per pas­sen­ger kilo­me­tre and a 65pc re­duc­tion in noise ac­cord­ing to Bri­tain’s Elec­tric Avi­a­tion Group, be­hind a 70-seat Hy­brid Elec­tric Re­gional Air­craft.

Hy­brid gets over bat­ter­ies’ prin­ci­pal problem – weight. In May, a mod­i­fied Cessna Car­a­van be­came the world’s big­gest all-elec­tric air­craft af­ter com­plet­ing a 30-minute test. But it can only carry nine pas­sen­gers. Fuel sim­ply con­tains far more en­ergy per kilo than bat­ter­ies. It also dis­ap­pears as you burn it up, mean­ing air­craft get lighter. If all-elec­tric short haul is the goal, hy­brids may bridge the gap.

The Bri­tish start-up Faradair, for ex­am­ple, is de­vel­op­ing both a hy­brid elec­tric model and an all-elec­tric, which it also hopes will be air­borne by 2030. At 18 seats, it is quickly con­vert­ible into all-cargo. If Lil­ium and Uber are work­ing on fly­ing cars, Faradair has been de­scribed as “the fly­ing van” – a work­horse of the skies.

An­other Bri­tish com­pany, ZeroAvia, is aim­ing for all elec­tric, but ditch­ing the bat­ter­ies. In­stead, it de­ploys a fuel cell, which mixes hy­dro­gen with oxy­gen to cre­ate an elec­tric cur­rent. The ex­haust is wa­ter. ZeroAvia claim its 10-20-seat test planes will be­come 50-100 seater by the end of the decade.

But ditch­ing jet fuel for elec­tric­ity brings with it a host of prob­lems. High volt­ages at al­ti­tude car­ries the risk of fire. One co-project be­tween Air­bus, Siemens and Rolls-Royce – the E-Fan X – re­vealed the need to re­think in­su­la­tion, ca­bles and switches. “You kind of go, ‘Ah, ac­tu­ally, this is go­ing to be a lot more chal­leng­ing than we thought’,” Riona Arme­smith, chief project en­gi­neer for hy­brid elec­tric propul­sion at Rolls-Royce, told the BBC re­cently.

Un­til re­cently, fly­ing taxis seemed the stuff of rich-kids dreams – fan­ci­ful not prac­ti­cal. But many hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars are pour­ing into the sec­tor now. The at­trac­tions are ob­vi­ous – no more traf­fic jams – even if the reg­u­la­tory path­way isn’t.

As for the air in­dus­try, it is strug­gling to sur­vive. Highly ef­fi­cient nar­row body jets are com­ing to dom­i­nate ever more of the long haul. But most flights are short haul. And that opens up the pos­si­bil­ity of elec­tric air­craft, es­pe­cially those pow­ered by hy­dro­gen fuel-cell tech­nol­ogy rather than heavy bat­ter­ies. To­mor­row: Part Four in our se­ries. What does the fu­ture hold for the freight in­dus­try?

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