Flying taxis are pure science-fiction: true or false?
Everyone has their opinion on that – and everyone’s entitled to one, too. But when Airbus, arguably the biggest name in all of aviation, believes that the widespread use of electric VTOL (Vertical Take Off And Landing) taxis is just a matter of time, then it’s worth taking note. That’s why we’ve invited Andreas Thellmann, Program Manager at Airbus Urban Mobility at the French aerospace giant, to deliver a talk at Mobility.Pioneers in Munich on February 7th.
And if our exclusive interview with him is anything to go by, you can expect him not to mince his words.
“We’re sure this will become a huge business for us,” he told us. “We think it could become a kind of mass market in 10-15 years. And we don’t just want to build the air vehicle but the entire value chain, the whole service. We think the one who dominates this value chain will be in a very good position in the market.”
Airbus is confident enough about its ability to grab that spot that it turned down a partnership approach from Uber. The stakes are indeed high.
Thellmann speaks not just with the huge resources of Airbus adding weight to his words, but with the credibility of having gone out there and already starting serious pilot projects. Most significant is Voom, their ‘Uber for helicopters’ concept running in Sao Paulo and Mexico City.
“We’re focusing on the megacities,” he says. “The demand is very high for this kind of transport in those cities, and we can scale it up to be profitable. Those cities alone are enough for the business case for air taxis – and enough for players in the market to be profitable.”
Although Voom uses traditional helicopters for the moment, Thellmann and his team are gathering a world of valid information about what the megacity market is willing to pay for short-distance air travel – and how to keep the prices coming down. It’s all information that will be invaluable for designing the bespoke electric machine that would be central to their future service.
“With Voom we’ve seen that with a sophisticated business model you can reduce prices for a flight from $2,500 to $150. That’s made possible by pooling passengers and doing journeys in shuttle mode. In this way you pay just for what you fly.
“So just by changing the business model you reduce the costs per trip. And now, if we replace the traditional helicopter with an electric aircraft that has few moving parts besides the rotor, we think we could reduce the price per trip even more. Within ten years of going into service we think we can come down to the same level as a ground taxi.”
With that said, Thellmann is quick to add a healthy dose of realism to the outlook.
“When I say it will be a mass market, I don’t mean it will be comparable with all two-dimensional transport. We just think it will become comparable with the ground taxi segment of today, which is 2-4% of overall public transport. Compared to current helicopters that will be a mass market, but in the end it will be a small contribution – not like in The Fifth Element! Having all the traffic in the air isn’t realistic in the coming decades.”
Thellmann expects the first regular VTOL taxi market to be longer trips of around 30km, particularly the city-to-airport runs featuring heavily in Voom. Only later, as scaling effects and volume pick up, would we be likely to see them buzzing along shorter routes. And, considering the steep cost increases that come with lifting and flying more than four people, early learnings from Voom is that the first VTOLs would probably stick to that number.
“Voom is a live experiment for us,” says Thellmann. “We’re gaining a lot of data. What is a typical flight in minutes? What is typical occupation per flight? What do these customers need? Do they have luggage with them? Do they travel alone or with a partner? We’re still iterating, but for the moment we think four passengers is a good compromise. We made tradeoff studies from two passengers right up to 16 and found four is a good compromise.”
If you’re thinking Airbus sounds like a company that’s always willing to learn in order to innovate and perform the kind of mini-pivot a move into air taxi service provision would represent, then you’re right. We’ve seen that from the inside, working with them on running their well-established and quite uniquely-structured BizLab accelerator program.
Thus it’s no surprise that Thellmann’s team is also looking to meet startups as it works first to finalize its CityAirbus demo vehicle (which will be much closer to a taxi concept than its Vahana vehicle) and then the final VTOL taxi it would take to market.
“With CityAirbus we are learning about distributed propulsion, because with Airbus we never built a distributed propulsion air vehicle before. There’s a lot to learn about software development, flight control systems and so forth.”
So, if you’re one of the startups we’ve selected for Mobility.Pioneers, don’t be shy to talk to Thellmann.
“When I’m at such events I usually approach the startups and have a short chat with them. I try to understand what they’re doing and where they want to go. That’s normally very interesting.
“I also like talking to companies dealing with drones. Even though non-passenger drones are really something else, there are nevertheless some commonalities such as their management in airspace.”
One final note: Instead of Uber, Airbus is working with car giant Audi on its future strategy for building an air taxi service. Just another illustration of how the traditional lines are blurring in the mobility scene – and how important it can be even for the big giants to learn from each other!
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