GM’s innovation group, headed by Alan Wexler, has been looking into different transportation markets for growth. One of them is the eVTOL aircraft.
eVTOLs are designed to avoid the need for long runways. They can fly on low-level routes, potentially relieving traffic congestion on roads. Using a combination of new electrical and autonomous technologies, eVTOLs are quieter and cleaner — and could even change the way cities themselves are designed in the future.
Numerous startups have received double and even triple-digit million dollars in venture capital funding.
Last January, Hyundai, and Uber teamed up to develop electric air taxis, and Toyota invested $590 million in air taxi startup, Joby. Daimler and Geely have done the same in Volocopter, while Rolls-Royce and Airbus are actively working on the CityAirbus demonstrator, an all-electric multi-copter designed to carry up to four passengers.
On the day GM spokesman Stuart Fowle made a statement about air taxis, GM shares were up almost 1.7% in midday trading. The company is expected to make a formal announcement early next year.
The eVTOL Market
The eVTOL market could reach a worth of $1.5 trillion by 2040, with projected growth at a CAGR of 20.42%. Recent years have seen hundreds of eVTOL concepts presented by startups and established players in the aerospace industry.
In the last months, corporate and private investors have invested at least $2.3 billion into over a hundred aerial vehicle startups. The segment also includes drones and electric air taxis.
The region that has, so far, led the way for eVTOL is Asia-Pacific, with Europe developing a major market. In North America, things are also looking promising: In April 2020, the USAF announced $25 million in funding for 2021 eVTOL projects.
American cities are already preparing the roadmap for the technologies to come. This month, the World Economic Forum and the city of Los Angeles announced a set of principles for rolling out urban air mobility in US cities.
GM is still considering whether it will focus on building, supplying, or partnering with other companies such as Hyundai Motor, Volkswagen AG, Toyota Motor, Daimler AG, and Geely Automobile.
The technology required to make eVTOL taxis happen is already in place. Multirotor drones can take off vertically and zoom horizontally, and their motors can rotate separately — which also makes them safer to handle, an essential feature when it comes to potentially transporting people. Like drones, eVTOL uses electric motors and rotors.
Many eVTOL early concepts relied solely on battery power. Because batteries have reduced their weight and become more reliable, all-electric platforms are perfectly suited for short distances at medium speed. Hybrid concepts could also allow for longer distance travel while remaining equally silent and environmentally friendly.
The UK-based company Vertical Aerospace recently presented a five-person taxi, the VA-1X. With eight rotors and a 49-foot wingspan, the vehicle can cruise up to a speed of 150 mph and is powered by a lithium-ion battery pack that gives it a range of 100 miles. The VA-1X is set to be the world’s first certified eVTOL aircraft and could start commercial flights in 2024.
The first eVTOL aircraft will likely pick up cargo and passengers using urban helipads and automated pilotless pods. They will most likely be driven only by licensed pilots and designed to be ridesharing aircraft.
If electric and hybrid-electric air taxis are to become a reality, the industry will have to create landing facilities and an extensive charging infrastructure powered by clean energy.
The eVTOL concepts in development demonstrate that companies have the capability of developing hardware for urban air mobility. The technology is expected to be 30 times quieter than a helicopter and completely change short-distance transportation.
As battery technology continues to improve, air taxis and eVTOL will become more sustainable and be able to fly longer and at higher speeds.
GM revealed its Ultium advanced electric batteries in March 2020. These large-format, pouch-style cells can give a range of 400 miles and be stacked vertically or horizontally inside a battery pack. This means that engineers can optimize the layout for each vehicle design.
With GM joining the urban air mobility race, eVTOL is one step closer to finally reaching the intra-city and inter-city transportation market.
About the Author
Yisela Alvarez Trentini is an Anthropologist + User Experience / Human-Computer Interaction Designer with an interest in emerging technologies, social robotics, and VR/AR.