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Big Money Pouring into Air Taxis

Big Money Pouring into Air Taxis

U.S.-based electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) startup Joby Aviation has announced plans to offer an air taxi service in South Korea in a major step forward in the intensifying race to be the first to make this a reality. 

The company, backed by some $2 billion in investments, including from Toyota, Uber and JetBlue, is partnering with South Korea’s largest telecommunication company, SK Telecom.

As part of the deal, the two companies set a goal of commercializing limited Urban Air Mobility (UAM) services by 2025, hoping to reduce traffic congestion in major cities.

“With more than 42 million people living in urban areas, South Korea offers a remarkable opportunity for Joby to make air travel a part of daily life, helping people to save time while reducing their carbon footprint,” Joby’s founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt said.

Joby’s eVTOL is a piloted, five-seat aircraft with a maximum speed of 200 miles per hour and a range of over 150 miles on a single charge.   

Currently, at least 250 companies worldwide are eVTOL aircraft. Even though many of them pledged to start commercial operations as early as 2023, the air taxis are still grounded. 

Why? Because they’re facing a lineup of technical, regulatory and infrastructure challenges.

While the pandemic may have caused some delays here, a bigger hurdle is elusive certification by the government agencies worldwide. It’s one thing to develop an air taxi; it’s quite another to turn them into a flying taxi service buzzing around city airspace. For now, only a handful of eVTOL developers, notably Joby, Archer and Lilium, have announced the start of an initial certification process with U.S., Europe and China agencies.

In addition to a  host of new regulations, there would have to be entire, complex regional airspaces to accommodate low-flying taxis. 

Nevertheless, the idea is being embraced by major transportation companies and investors, and some see flying cars becoming part of the global transportation network. Some even see annual air passenger journeys reaching $7.2 billion by 2035.

In just the first nine months of last year, the advanced air mobility (AAM) market attracted more than $5.4 billion in investment.

In June, Virgin Atlantic partnered with Vertical Aerospace, with options to purchase up to 150 eVTOL aircraft, and announced plans to establish a network of short-haul passenger flights.

Previously, flying taxi firm Volocopter, a German startup backed by Intel and Daimler, was planning rides into city centers using its VoloCity electric air taxi.

In late 2019, Chinese car company Geely, owner of Volvo and Lotus, acquired Terrafugia, a U.S. flying-car developer that plans to launch its VTOL by 2023. 

Audi teamed up with European airline company Airbus and design house Italdesign to unveil PopUp Next, while the German government approved testing of the flying taxi in the city of Ingolstadt, Audi’s hometown. 

In 2020, Scottish asset management firm Baillie Gifford, the second biggest shareholder in Tesla, invested $35 million in German air taxi startup Lilium bringing the total valuation to over $1 billion. 

For the Olympic Games to be held in France in 2024, Airbus is planning to transport the participants and general public by its flying taxi, CityAirbus

Earlier this year, Boeing invested another $450m towards Wisk, self-flying taxis developer, a joint venture Boeing and KittyHawk, the air vehicle firm launched by Google co-founder Larry Page

So, it’s coming to airspace near you, but it won’t be without plenty of hurdles and the rollout for the foreseeable future looks more likely to be confined to specific events where temporary infrastructure can be organized. 

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