At around noon on a bright autumn day in 2023, a mysterious object resembling a gigantic bug appeared in the skies over lower Manhattan. For about six minutes it whirred along above the Hudson River at low altitude. Those gawking at this flying object from below may not have noticed the lone pilot aboard, but his presence spoke to the whole point of the exercise. While early test flights of this electrically powered air taxi had been unmanned, a real human being aboard could help move it from the realm of science fiction to reality—and closer to the day when the other four seats aboard would be filled with paying customers.
Huddled on the ground at a landing pad were some movers and shakers, the intended audience for the demo. “This is just unbelievable, it’s the next evolution,” gushed New York Mayor Eric Adams. “We’ll be able to move faster to and from our places, and to do it in a clean, green way.” Unlike the helicopters that city dwellers detest, this battery-powered air taxi would be quiet and carbon-free, he said. And it might even be affordable, with an aerial rideshare eventually costing about the same as the terrestrial version.
The real star of the show, though, was the futuristic “S4” aircraft from Joby Aviation, a Silicon Valley tech firm that has grown into a $1 billion company, funded by deep-pocketed investors like Delta Air Lines, which wants to offer the taxis as a passenger perk. Archer Aviation, another Bay Area manufacturer, has teamed with United Airlines, which has ordered 100 of the company’s four-seater “Midnight” aircraft.
Other major airlines, such as American, Japan Airlines, and Lufthansa, are getting into the game, and Blade, which already operates an app-based helicopter service to airports, is testing its own flying taxis. These assorted partnerships could ultimately create a vast web of air taxi networks, parallel to for-hire car services on terra firma. If all goes according to plan, in the USA they could begin carrying riders from downtown “vertiports” in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other mega-cities to major airports sometime next year.
It won’t be easy. German manufacturer Volocopter has done test drives in other U.S. cities (including New York, where it shared the stage with Joby last fall) and has been toiling since 2021 to get permission to start flying air taxis during the upcoming Summer Olympic Games in Paris in late July. But in contrast to its New York welcome, the reaction in the French capital has been decidedly less friendly. That very same week in November, Parisian lawmakers vowed to block the plan—which entails building a landing pad on a barge in the Seine River, among other things. Paris Deputy Mayor Dan Lert, who oversees climate plans, slammed the scheme as “a totally useless gimmick for a few ultra-privileged people in a hurry.” (The dispute was ongoing at press time.)
Will 2024, then, be the year the electric air taxi industry finally takes off, or will it get stuck in the slow lane? Signs are still positive: The industry as whole in the past two years has attracted some $6 billion in financing, and unlike Paris, other cities around the world from São Paulo to Singapore are clamoring to be among the first adopters. Among hundreds of startups pitching their version of this air taxi, a dozen are entering a more serious phase, greenlighting factories capable of mass producing these birds, such as a Joby facility being built in Dayton, Ohio, with substantial backing from Toyota. (Stellantis, another giant automaker, has a similar deal with Archer.)
By 2030, the “eVTOL” industry (for electric vertical takeoff and landing) could be generating $3 billion in annual revenue off 70,000 daily passengers, according to research from global management consultant McKinsey; some sources estimate there could be 50,000 electric air taxis operating worldwide by 2040. Still, as of early 2024, none of these contraptions has been certified by a government regulatory authority to enter commercial service outside of China, which approved a plan by EHang Technology to go straight to autonomous (i.e, without a human pilot) passenger-carrying air taxis. So what has to happen next?
Futuristic visions of “flying cars” and personal planes parked in garages are nothing new: They are the sort of everyman’s fantasy that inspires inventors and entrepreneurs. Many tried, and some came close to succeeding—including Molt Taylor, an engineer living near Seattle who got the idea while working for the military and built his first flying car in 1950—well before the Jetsons cartoon popularized the notion in the 1960s.
His “Taylor Aerocar” consisted of a sporty red chassis with folded-up wings and tailfin that would be towed by the car and deployed when it came time to lift off. It could travel 60 mph on the ground and 100 mph in the air; in 1956, Taylor won approval for the design from the then–Civil Aeronautics Board (the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, later assumed its safety duties). “They were built in a time after World War ll when optimism ran high and everything was possible,” Jake Schulz, a technical analyst at Boeing, wrote in his book Aerocar, A Drive in the Clouds. Taylor himself said his dream was “to look up and see the sky [filled] with Aerocars,” predicting that hundreds would flood the market once the aerospace industry got onboard.
It didn’t. Ultimately, only six Aerocars were built and sold (for about $14,000 each), one to the actor Bob Cummings, who used it as high-tech prop in his television show. Along with other flying car experiments, the surviving models are housed in aviation museums such as the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
Fast-forward to 2024, when the modern-day version of the flying car is the eVTOL: a battery-powered aircraft that can take off and land like a helicopter but fly like a small winged airplane. In size and ambition, eVTOLs are closer to puddle jumpers than to jet planes. Given the limited capacity of batteries necessary for electrical propulsion, the most feasible short-term incarnation is a diminutive craft that can hold anywhere from two to eight people, travel up to 200 miles (at speeds of around 150 mph) without having to recharge, and will be quieter, more sustainable, and eventually, more affordable than the choppers they seek to replace. They can be used for many purposes: search and rescue operations, cargo, and flightseeing, among other functions. They have been a dream—for many—for some time.
It is a large undertaking to bring about a new form of transportation.
Sometime in the late aughts, the clumsy acronym eVTOL (pronounced ee-vee-toll) caught on with aviation geeks, possibly due to a reference in a NASA project that got wide attention after a video presentation went viral. Flying cars were an amusing distraction, but it was the vision of nonpolluting urban air taxis that gripped the popular imagination. The eVTOL’s time had arrived.
To get to the next step, a visionary was needed. Enter JoeBen Bevirt, a Stanford trained engineer and tech world wunderkind; raised in a remote area called Last Chance in Northern California, he was named after a character in the novel Sometimes a Great Notion, written by family friend Ken Kesey. As a child, he dreamed of building his own plane, and he developed his first invention, a new type of suspension mountain bike, while still in high school.
By his mid-20s, he had founded his first startup company. One of Bevirt’s creations quickly hit paydirt: the “gorilla pod,” a portable tripod beloved by photographers worldwide.
Bevirt’s aha moment came a few years later when he got back to his early dream—a new kind of flying. In 2009, he founded Joby Aviation and gathered with fellow engineers in the Bay Area in makeshift quarters, nicknamed “the barn,” akin to Steve Jobs’ garage in Apple company lore. There, they started work on a flying car prototype, made possible by a breakthrough that was shaping everything from automobiles to drones: electrical propulsion.
In addition to attracting other entrepreneurs, the eVTOL concept got a lot of attention from other disruptors. In 2016, Uber issued what would later be regarded as a landmark white paper, “Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation.” Some regarded it as a “crazy stunt” to boost the company’s valuation ahead of its much-anticipated IPO offering, says Michael Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society. But Uber soon showed it was serious. The “fast-forwarding” in the paper’s title referred to what some experts dismissed as an impossible timeline to create, in a few years, a global movement for electric air taxis in major cities, which Uber’s app-based ride sharing business model would be perfectly positioned to bring to the masses. This led to a blueprint for what became Uber Elevate, which began an Uber Copter feature that launched in New York in 2019. Heading that unit was aerospace engineer Eric Allison, who had a PhD degree from Stanford and several stints with aviation startups. When Joby Aviation acquired Uber Elevate in 2020, he became the company’s head of product.
Allison, who spoke to AFAR in late 2023 after several successful Joby test runs, says he is confident that Joby’s air taxis will be operating in some form in 2025, most likely starting as a Delta partner ferrying fliers to airports in New York City and Los Angeles, bookable through the Delta app. (It will also make its aerial ride sharing available to other customers via its own Joby app.)
Still, he is aware there is much work to be done: “It is a large undertaking to bring about a new form of transportation,” Allison says. Part of the purpose of the test runs in key cities is “to make sure we’ve got our ducks in a row. We are paying close attention to the reaction we get—it’s important to engage with the community.”
And that gets to the noise question: Are they totally silent? Allison notes that “it’s more like white noise” instead of the “wup wup wup of a helicopter.” Vance Hilderman, an aviation expert and CEO of Afuzion, an aerospace certification firm, says that the decibel level of current eVTOL prototypes is about one-tenth the noise level of a chopper in an urban environment. But skeptics will need to be convinced; hence, the public can expect more road shows in the coming months.
And then there’s the power question: The eVTOLs would need a place to plug in and charge their batteries so they’d have enough juice to stay in the air for several hours or more, and Allison said that’s another focus of the race to launch. In New York, for example, the city has already requested bids for projects to bring electrical charging stations to two existing heliports.
The Uber model will also shape how this new type of travel will be marketed to consumers. According to Joby, it’s going to look and act like a ride hailing app—it’s just the type of vehicle that’s changed. So is this really so cutting edge? After all, you can get to the airport now via an old-fashioned chopper. “As a helicopter replacement or augmentation, yes, that’s kind of boring,” says Hilderman. “It’s clear that [at this stage] they are going after that affluent market.”
Gail Grimmett, Delta’s senior vice president of sustainability performance, rejects the notion strongly. “This is absolutely not only for the super wealthy,” she says. “The ability to offer this to all of our customers is very important.” Initially, Delta and Joby say it’ll be offered at first to Delta customers, but at Uber-like prices—starting with the higher “Black” fare range (about $200 one way from Manhattan to JFK Airport, for example) but ultimately going down as the service expands. Of course, it won’t be nonstop from your home to the airport. Once you hail the ride, a car would pick you up and drive you to the nearest vertiport, where you’d board the eVTOL for the brief flight to the airport. The question of how much time travelers will save—as well as how much money they’ll shell out for that convenience—remains open.
How communities living under the paths of these eVTOLs will react is another consideration. The FAA, for example, already has a team tasked to gauge the impact on densely populated areas. And some analysts are concerned that, much as Uber underestimated the backlash to its rideshares in some areas, air taxis could be rushed to market without adequately considering the impact on local citizens.
“The problem is that big city mayors always want to be seen as innovative,” said Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank. “They’re always concerned they may be missing out, and there’s so much hype over this right now.” Among the objections he raises: These flying cars may be not as environmentally benign as advertised, and they could erode support for more sustainable forms of travel like light rail. The other issue? How air traffic control can manage flight paths in a congested airspace.
The FAA is, if anything, being more cautious than it normally would, especially after an Alaska Airlines incident in early January put the entire aviation regulatory system under the microscope. In late 2023, the FAA had already issued new guidelines on eVTOL approval that some observers saw as adding a layer of scrutiny.
Among the issues to be considered: noise levels; where the needed “vertiports” will be located (there’s talk of eVTOLs landing on rooftops of office buildings, parking garages, or on boats or barges); how they will fit in with air traffic control patterns; and most importantly, safety. The big questions regarding safety are who will fly them and what happens in an emergency? “That’s something no one is talking about,” Hilderman says. “But these are low-flying vehicles in a busy airspace, and what do you do if you have to land fast?”
As for approvals, Jessica Sypniewski, a top FAA official, put it simply at the FAA’s first Advanced Air Mobility symposium in August 2023: “We’ll be ready when the air taxi developers are ready to operate safely.”