Canadian Manufacturing

Aerospace manufacturers says that flying taxis are coming, but first for the wealthy

The Canadian Press
   

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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