Volocopter publicly committed to launch air taxi services in Singapore within the next three years, beginning with a tourism-focused route near the Marina Bay, near where the company conducted a demonstration flight in October of last year.
The German eVTOL developer plans to hire up to 50 pilots, engineers, operations specialists and business managers in preparation for its Singapore launch. While the first identified route will be a tourist attraction rather than a transportation service, Volocopter intends to “manage a network of Singapore routes by 2026,” according to the company’s press release, which will require over 200 full-time employees in Singapore.
The announcement does not come as a surprise, as Volocopter has worked closely for the past two years with the Southeast Asian city-state to lay the groundwork for its entry into the city’s mobility ecosystem. In addition to the public test flight, Volocopter partnered with U.K.-based Skyports to demo a “VoloPort” and is collaborating with one of the region’s leading mobility platforms, Grab, to study suitable cities and routes for air taxi service.
Volocopter hasn’t set a firm target for initial ticket prices yet, though it recently sold 1,000 early-bird rides at a cost of €300 each, which chief commercial officer Christian Bauer referenced during a recent webinar as “a certain level that we might start with.”
“Going out to 2030, we clearly have the vision to price such a seat for the price of a premium taxi. For example JFK [airport] to downtown [New York City] this will be $80-90, that is our target and our vision within the company,” Bauer said during Revolution.Aero’s virtual 2020 conference. “What needs to happen to get there, of course we need to scale our production with [investors in Volocopter] Geely and Daimler, and we are planning that, and secondly we have to get in the autonomous capability to be able to sell two seats.”
As the German eVTOL developer continues to focus on certifying its aircraft with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Volocopter will work with Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) and Ministry of Transit (MOT) to prepare for the launch of services in the city. The company began evaluations of its aircraft with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) in late 2018 and opened an office in the country in 2019.
“Singapore is renowned for its leading role in adapting and living new technologies. Our successful cooperation with EDB, MOT, and CAAS on our previous flight has shown that there is no better place in Asia to launch our electric air taxi services than in Singapore,” said Florian Reuter, CEO of Volocopter. “The city’s research institutes conducting R&D play an integral part in this. Topics like route validation for autonomous operations, material science, and research regarding battery technology are very important for our long-term business success.”
Volocopter’s announcement also follows shortly after the release of an agreement between EASA and CAAS to deepen cooperation on new aircraft certification, allowing CAAS to begin validating the aircraft’s type certificate concurrently with ongoing EASA testing.
Early adoption: city versus citizens
A recent market study conducted by Frost & Sullivan concluded Singapore is the city “most ready and attractive” for hosting urban air mobility (UAM) services in the Asia-Pacific region, due in part to investments in digital infrastructure and airspace traffic management policy development.
“Our modeling indicated that Singapore would likely be the second city in the world, behind Dubai, to adopt air taxis, in roughly the 2024-25 time frame,” Michael Blades, vice president for aerospace, security and defense at Frost & Sullivan, told eVTOL.com. “But announcements like the closer collaboration between CAAS and EASA, and Volocopter’s commitment, are likely to move that timeframe to the left as they impact the investment of resources and development of capabilities in the city.”
However, the same study found citizens of Singapore noticeably less interested in using UAM than residents of most other cities around the world. Just 27 percent of Singaporeans said they are open to or will definitely use air taxis — far below the 50-60 percent of respondents in Cape Town, Mexico City, Dubai and São Paulo, among others.
“Of the 12 cities we conducted surveys in as part of our global demand study, residents in Tokyo and Singapore demonstrated the least interest in using air taxi services,” Blades said. “Even though both cities are highly technologically advanced, they also have robust ground transportation systems, are fairly clean and relatively uncongested. So while Singapore may beat many other urban centers to adopting urban air mobility, there may be less demand than cities like Beijing, Los Angeles and Boston that have more acute problems around mobility.”
Singapore has both an effective, world-renowned public transit system and low congestion, the latter achieved through intense regulation of public car ownership and aggressive dynamic congestion pricing. From 2005 to 2014, despite a population increase of 31 percent, Singapore did not experience any drop in average speed at peak hours in either its central business district (CBD) or expressways, as noted Alain Bertaud, former principal urban planner at the World Bank.
“The objective of road pricing in Singapore is to guarantee a minimum peak-hour speed for cars in the CBD, main arterial roads, and expressways,” Bertain wrote in his book Order without Design. “The toll is adjusted during the day for time and location. The monitoring of vehicle speed is done continuously, and toll rates are adjusted quarterly to maintain the minimum speed. In addition, measures have been taken to limit the number of cars on the island by auctioning periodically the right to buy new cars.”
The outcomes of Singapore’s restrictive approach to car ownership roadway usage — accompanied by its investment in public transit — are very much desired by today’s urbanists and planners, according to Bertaud, many of whom wish to prioritize public transit, walkability and biking while reducing the degree to which cities are planned around and dominated by the use of personal automobiles. Vancouver, another city believed a candidate for early adoption of UAM, is exploring congestion pricing as part of its plan to lower emissions and maintain livability as its population continues to grow.
Some localities in the United States have begun to implement dynamically tolled highway lanes. But Western cities, despite the attitudes of their planning departments, are likely to face stiff public resistance to the implementation of congestion pricing, limits on car ownership and other similar public policies, which means roads are likely to see continued congestion and slow speeds — central to the proposition of urban air taxi routes that aren’t reliant on geographic obstacles to create efficiency for riders.
With an compact urban core that covers less than two square miles (under five square kilometers), Singapore also doesn’t offer the longer distances that aviation typically requires to offset the time needed for multi-modal travel and offer an improvement over two-dimensional movement.
Volocopter’s selection may offer an exemplary test of the sky-high values consulting firms have ascribed to urban air mobility. In a small city with stellar public transportation, can air taxis provide enough value to lure residents away from existing options and create an entirely new mobility market?
Perhaps in 2023 we’ll find out.