Air taxi strategizing is coming from every conceivable direction. Research universities, with their expertise in aeronautical design, have spun off eVTOL efforts. Silicon Valley maverick Google and industrial muse Uber have dug into what they see as a melding of apps and drones, while aerospace giants Boeing and Airbus are using their vast resources to stake a claim in future aeromobility. Even flying car stalwart Terrafugia has shifted its gaze from runways to landing pads.
That’s just the start. Helicopter manufacturers like Bell are in the game on the strengths of their expertise in vertical-lift manufacturing, ad-hoc brain trusts around the world have coughed up countless concepts, and a come-from-nowhere upstart called Beta Technologies has joined unconventional but committed aerospace invader Joby as a surprise front-runner in the race toward viable eVTOL programs.
The avalanche of expertise can be dizzying, but the logic behind all these crossovers and partnerships is indisputably sound — and this young industry remains a mostly aerospace-industry affair.
That said, there is one industry that keeps coming up in conversation as a key alternative guiding light, often to such an extent that it would seem to be on the verge of eclipsing the aviation industry as the role model for urban air mobility: the automotive industry. It’s not that carmakers possess any sort of clairvoyant insight regarding all of the challenges facing the industry, from aircraft certification to safety to their integration into public airspace, but the ones it does possess insight on — manufacturing and propulsion — are notably central. It seems that without batteries, motors, and actual aircraft to fly, there may not be much of an air taxi industry at all.
Drawing on Detroit
This is part of the reason that aerospace engineer Anita Sengupta, co-founder of eVTOL startup ASX, chose very deliberately to locate her company in Detroit. “The core of our business model brings the best of automotive and aviation to bear, in order to reduce the price point,” she said. “The automotive industry makes complex machines but at a low cost. We’re going to use automotive-grade batteries and automotive electric motors, and we’re going to do it in Detroit. There’s no reason for us to make custom hardware when we can get it off the shelf.”
ASX’s proposed aircraft will use tilt-wing technology and hybrid propulsion to fly up to 260 miles at 150 mph. Sengupta said they’re aiming to have produced 2,500 aircraft in total by 2025, producing 500 per year by 2023. The foundation for such capacity exists in Detroit, she explained. “During World War II, all aircraft were built in Michigan, so this isn’t necessarily a departure,” she said. “The University of Michigan is one of the best aerospace resources in the country, so we can get the right talent and an appropriate industrial base here.”
The company is targeting a per-aircraft cost of less than $1 million, and Sengupta said manufacturing efficiently and in high volumes as the automotive industry is able to do will be central to achieving that. In fact, automotive legend and former leader of all three major U.S. automakers Bob Lutz sits on ASX’s board of directors.
The idea of automotive participation in aeromobility certainly isn’t new. Multiple carmakers have released their own eVTOL concepts in the last several years, including Aston Martin and Audi, and carmakers are dipping their toes in the industry by backing startups and R&D efforts as well as contributing assorted expertise. Toyota has backed Japanese flying-car firm Cartivator, for instance, and BMW Designworks shaped the look of the new fuel-cell-powered Alaka’i Technologies Skai aircraft.
Often the links are even less direct, involving personnel who crisscross between the two industries. Though Icon Aircraft is not yet directly involved in eVTOL, its current CEO could have a major impact on how the eVTOL community scales upward. Thomas Wieners, who began his career working for Audi and Mercedes in Germany before switching to Bombardier, is working to correct early carbon-fiber manufacturing missteps — the same kind air taxi manufacturers might face — by bringing car factory tactics to the airplane assembly line.
“We call it the Icon Production System, and it uses similar performance-indicator tracking that every automotive manufacturer uses,” Wieners said. “We improve and leverage our labor force by having them help us determine what we can do better. By implementing this with data collection systems, we can improve even what’s a very manual-labor-intensive process.”
Sengupta noted, as well, that tremendous insight about carbon-fiber manufacturing can be gleaned from some perhaps surprising sectors of the automotive world. “There’s a very good analog in sports car composite manufacturing,” she said. “They’re all over the place. We have one right in our back yard here in Detroit.”
Parallels but differences, too
Other traditionally automotive-oriented businesses are snooping around the air taxi scene because it simply makes tons of sense. Automotive supplier Denso recently announced a partnership with aerospace giant Honeywell to manufacturer electric propulsion systems for eVTOL aircraft. These will include the motors and inverters it has already produced in the millions for carmakers including Toyota.
The challenge, according to senior vice president of engineering Bill Foy, is optimizing the equipment for a market that has parallels but also multiple key differences, perhaps most notably in its sensitivity to weight and requirements for redundancy. “We have to adapt to aerospace from a technological level, and that’s part of why we’re getting together with Honeywell,” Foy said. “They clearly understand the certification challenges in that area, and we’re going to additionally be working with the aircraft manufacturers to understand the whole family of parts needed for future air mobility.”
In addition to manufacturing and propulsion opportunities, there will also likely be parallels between automotive and aerospace in the need for autonomous operation and the overall passenger experience, the latter of which carmakers have honed to a razor-sharp science over many decades.
That said, there are also a great many differences between the two fields. In addition to being far more sensitive to weight, aircraft systems have different motor performance requirements, battery discharge standards, and overall safety protocols. They also have standards to address concerns that aren’t really issues in the car world — such as more thorough certification of repair processes for damaged components. Future eVTOL aircraft won’t be repaired by garage mechanics around the corner.
Of course, part of the point of this whole cross-pollination is the democratization of aviation. If that means you might one day fly across town in an air taxi built by Toyota, who’s to say that it might not be quick, easy, and affordable to repair?