Are air taxis just 5 years away?

Urban air mobility companies aim to reinvent commuting with eVTOL vehicles

Tony Velocci
11 May 2022

6 min read

It’s 7 a.m. in Southern California and four road warriors, delighted to avoid the hour-long slog from Newport Beach to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), board a piloted electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicle operating from an Orange County vertiport.

Whisper quiet, the six-rotor aircraft lifts off, transitions to horizontal flight, climbs to a designated “lane” for commercial eVTOL vehicles, and whisks the passengers to LAX, some 46 miles away, in just 15 minutes. With a range of up to 250 miles, depending on the aircraft and payload requirements, eVTOL vehicles enable intra-city advanced air mobility, as well as longer trips to outlying areas and nearby cities.

If this sounds like a scenario set decades in the future, think again. A quiet revolution in air transportation is under way, and commercial eVTOL vehicles – electric air taxis, basically – could become a reality within the next few years, regulators, vehicle developers and industry analysts agree.

Lilium recently completed a critical regulatory milestone on the Munich, Germany-based company’s path to type certification and serial production of its Lilium jet, an electrically powered vertical take-off and landing vehicle. (Image courtesy of Lilium)

“This is real,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said. “We anticipate that there’s a good possibility – I would say a high likelihood – that we will have the first designs certified in 2023 and could see the first Advanced and Urban Air Mobility (AAM/UAM) operations as early as 2024.”


Nearly every major aerospace airframe manufacturer has eVTOL plays. Airbus has its CityAirbus technology demonstrator, Bell Helicopter has a passenger eVTOL called Nexus, and Boeing has an autonomous eVTOL joint venture with Wisk.

An increasing number of commercial airlines are also getting in on the action by placing conditional orders for hundreds of the eVTOL vehicles that are nearing certification.

For instance, JetBlue Airways is helping finance Joby Aviation’s development of an all-electric aircraft through its JetBlue Technology Ventures Fund. United Airlines, together with its regional partner Mesa Airlines, preordered 200 of Archer Aviation’s Maker electric air taxis. American Airlines ordered up to 250 VA-X4 vehicles being developed by Vertical Aerospace. Most recently, Lilium inked a US $1 billion (€906.85 million) agreement with Azul, a major Brazilian airline, which includes pre-orders for 220 of Lilium’s electric aircraft.

Learn how to accelerate eVTOL certification

American Airlines ordered up to 250 VA-X4 vehicles being developed by Vertical Aerospace. Most recently, Lilium inked a US $1 billion (€906.85 million) agreement with Azul, a major Brazilian airline, which includes pre-orders for 220 of Lilium’s electric aircraft.

Airlines worldwide envision transporting passengers from urban vertiports to nearby airports in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York , Paris, Sao Paulo and Singapore. Urban Air-Port’s first eVTOL “port” is scheduled to open in June 2022 in Coventry, near London. Cowen aerospace analyst Cai Von Rumohr estimates that 93% of the world’s top 100 airports are located within 20 miles of their city centers.

As the eVTOL sector evolves, industry analysts expect to see manufacturers and airline partners forge their own route systems. Collectively, these networks are expected to form an ever- expanding eVTOL ecosystem in cities worldwide. “The spectrum of different ways [eVTOL aircraft] can be used is absolutely huge,” said Craig Jenks, president of New York-based consultancy Airline/Aircraft Projects.  


Even automotive companies, including Honda, Hyundai and Toyota, haven’t been shy about their eVTOL ambitions. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a meaningful move from Ford or General Motors in 2022,” said Cyrus Sigari, co-founder and managing partner of UP. Partners, an early-stage venture capital firm.

Could air taxis one day be as commonplace as traditional ones? “It’s a Wright Brothers era,” Uber CEO Mark Moore said. “The fact that car companies are entering the UAM business speaks volumes, and in a year or two every single automotive company will be involved in some way in urban air mobility.”

eVTOL vehicles have long been a vision of aviation entrepreneurs. Major advances in battery technology and lightweight composite materials, as well as the relatively low operating costs of electric engines, are making the vision possible.

Remarkably, the idea of aerial urban ride-sharing was little more than a concept five years ago. The aviation/aerospace industry historically has taken decades to develop successful new aircraft and air transportation modes in evolutionary cycles of innovation that built upon one another, but eVTOL platforms are another story. “They have evolved at an extraordinary speed in a very short period,” said Ken Witcher, dean of the College of Aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

California-based Joby Aviation has flown a full-size prototype of its all-electric air taxi more than 150 miles on a single battery charge, including a vertical take-off and landing. (Image courtesy of Joby Aviation)

Investors, anticipating the inauguration of commercial services in the mid-2020s, poured more than US$6 billion (€5.44 billion) into the emerging AAM/UAM sector in 2021, Morgan Stanley aerospace analyst Kristine Liwag said. “Worldwide, the addressable market potential over the next 10 to 15 years is extraordinarily large, based on continued improvements in battery and materials technology, autonomy and growth of final-mile business models,” she said.

An estimated 200 eVTOL commercial projects are underway worldwide, according to the Vertical Flight Society (VFS), the professional society for the advancement of vertical flight technology and its useful application worldwide. Of these, about a dozen are considered frontrunners, with designs spanning a range of configurations and business models.

VSF, which is based in the Washington, D.C. area, recognizes several broad categories, both winged and wingless. All of them feature a sleek aerodynamic pod that can accommodate a pilot and up to six passengers.

What defines an eVTOL?

eVTOLs come in several different varieties. In general, they are classified by:

-Carrying capacity, from 0 to 7+ passengers
-Energy source, including electric/batteries; electric hybrid; and electric/hydrogen
-Thrust type, including vectored thrust; lift and cruise; wingless; hover bikes and personal flying devices; and electric helicopters
-Pilot type: autonomous or piloted

Source: Vertical Flight Society

Unlike fuel-powered rotorcraft, otherwise known as helicopters, eVTOL vehicles emit zero emissions and are ultra-quiet. Developers also expect them to be cheaper to operate. The reason? Electric motors for UAM vehicles are simpler to manufacture than the gas turbines that power many comparably sized rotorcraft. In addition, eVTOL aircraft have fewer critical components that require regular inspection and replacement, which adds significantly to the cost of operating rotorcrafts.

Moreover, eVTOL aircraft are expected to be safer than helicopters due to their redundant flight controls and integrated distributed propulsion systems, which employ multiple rotors for vertical lift, versus a helicopter’s single rotor. This eliminates the single point of mechanical failure risk inherent in many helicopter designs.

eVTOL proponents believe these differentiators will enable urban air mobility operations to flourish at a scale that simply hasn’t been possible with rotorcraft. That doesn’t mean helicopters will disappear; they will continue to be a valuable tool, militarily and in civil applications. In addition, their size, speed, range and cabin comfort will ensure that they remain a preferred mode of transportation in the service of many businesses and individuals, including air ambulances. But eVTOLs may become the vehicle of choice for short commutes in congested urban areas.


Autonomous, pilotless passenger transport, the holy grail of UAM, will take longer. Artificial intelligence will be key, Uber’s Moore said. Regulators have just started to examine this next phase of eVTOL’s evolution, issuing their first usable guidance on requirements for safety-related machine learning applications.

“The companies developing these vehicles have clearly stated that [piloted operations] is the first step, and the second step [will be] unmanned air taxis,” said Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Union’s Aviation Safety Agency (EASA),.

“It’s a Wright Brothers era. The fact that car companies are entering the UAM business speaks volumes, and in a year or two every single automotive company will be involved in some way in urban air mobility.”

 Mark Moore, Uber CEO     

The FAA currently is working with seven companies to certify Advanced Air Mobility/Urban Air Mobility vehicle designs, the FAA’s Dickson said. These include piloted and autonomous passenger and cargo aircraft. Across the Atlantic, EASA is working with about 24 developers of both passenger-carrying eVTOLs and autonomous aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, intended for package delivery.

While all players express high confidence that eVTOL platforms will transition to commercial operations within the next few years, a lot of work remains to be done before such expectations come to fruition.

Air traffic management rules will need to be developed and infrastructure built to support eVTOL operations, Ky noted. Another imperative is public acceptance. Widespread use of eVTOL aircraft will depend on individual communities and their willingness to allow them to fly overhead, said James Sherman, the Vertical Flight Society’s director of strategic development.  “We have to overcome that and allow the public to see these vehicles in operation and how they can benefit from them.”

Then there’s the production readiness of manufacturers. As Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, put it: “Prototypes are easy. Scaling production is hard.”

Even with all of these challenges, this much is certain: eVTOL-enabled urban air mobility is on course to become one of the most transformational forces in aviation since the introduction of commercial jet airplane travel in the 1950s.  

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