Flying taxis: ready for take off?

By Nick Jessup

In the world of decarbonising transport, there are lots of exciting ideas flying around. From hydrogen-powered trains to overhead electric cables being installed on motorways, innovators in the sector are already drawing up a number of ambitious plans that seek to change the way that we travel in the future.

From an environmental perspective, this change cannot come soon enough. Transport is the single largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK, accounting for 34 per cent of the total in 2019. While emissions have been coming down in the sector, the rate of decrease (2.8 per cent) lags behind other high-polluting areas, such as power stations, which decreased their total emissions by 13.2 per cent between 2018 and 2019.

The forthcoming Transport Decarbonisation Strategy will likely reveal more about the Government’s priorities for ensuring that the Net Zero target is reached by 2050 and will also tell us more about how the Government envisages that we will travel in the future. We already know a number of the policy areas that the Department favours – banning petrol and diesel cars by 2030, trialling e-scooters (which are hoped to replace cars for some short journeys) and encouraging a modal shift away from diesel locomotives on the railways.

Additionally, the National Bus Strategy, released last week, put the decarbonisation of the nation’s buses front and centre, with a promise to reform the Bus Service Operators’ Grant, which has historically benefitted diesel and hybrid vehicles at the expense of zero-emission alternatives. With expanded services, simplified ticketing, and the option of franchising for local authorities that want to pursue it, the Government hopes to make buses an attractive alternative to the car. (For more on the National Bus Strategy, have a read of this piece by Christine Quigley).

However, while the greater proliferation of electric vehicles and bus journeys that replace cars will bring a welcome shift in the direction of cleaner air and lower carbon emissions, analysts are concerned that a major problem still remains to be solved: congestion. Add in micro mobility vehicles as additional road users, as well as widened pavements and more cycling lanes to encourage active travel, and it is easy to paint a picture of continued road congestion, even if the transport on the roads is greener.

Enter the flying electric taxi, which supporters say will be a great addition to the green transport network, alleviate road congestion, and cut journey times. Electrical vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft have been backed by automotive and aviation giants like Toyota, Hyundai, and Boeing, and Joby Aviation, a leading California-based start-up, has received over $820 million in funding over the last few years. Joby aims to have a flying electric vehicle ready for commercial service by 2024 and is expected to be worth around $6.6 billion when it is floated on the New York Stock Exchange later this year. Meanwhile, US airline United announced in February that it plans to buy 200 eVTOLs that it hopes will transport passengers to and from major airports within the next few years, and the UK Government has awarded £2.5m worth of funding to Vertical Aerospace, a Bristol-based electric aircraft manufacturer, for a study examining the feasibility of an air taxi service in south west England.  

Investors clearly believe that the concept is a winner. Joby’s model has room for four passengers, boasts a range of 150 miles on a single charge and a maximum speed of 200 miles per hour. This means that a flying taxi could accomplish the 30-mile round trip between Heathrow and Central London in as little as 9 minutes. Vertical’s model has a 100-mile range and a journey between London and Brighton is expected to take 30 minutes, a considerable improvement on the current average rail time of 80.

Ultimately, the key factor that will determine how mainstream this technology becomes is cost. The investment is clearly available, and the support of automotive and aerospace giants makes mass production of the vehicles a distinct possibility, but the expected cost of even a short journey will far exceed any of the transport options currently available. The Telegraph reported in August that a 100-mile flight in Vertical Aerospace’s eVTOL would cost between £500-£1000, an eye-watering amount for anyone except the super-rich, and a figure likely to make it the preserve of only a few. This, in turn, would seriously limit the ability of this particular green technology to put a dent in the transport sector’s carbon emissions.

Moreover, the cost of the infrastructure needed to accompany flying taxis – and the question of where dedicated landing areas (vertiports) might be installed in city centres – remains unanswered. They have yet to be seriously planned within urban transport networks. If, as the manufacturers of the vehicles hope, these taxis are poised to revolutionise short journeys, serious consideration will need to be given to where landing sites will be installed, undoubtedly an expensive challenge that will require significant investment. So far, the key market seems to be journeys between city centres and airports, but in the UK at least, a significant commitment will be needed from both the manufacturers and the airports before this becomes feasible. If a large carrier were to replicate the actions of United and commit to a fleet for a major UK airport, that could well be a gamechanger.

That being said, the flying taxi market will also need to go to some effort to convince both policymakers and the public that eVTOLs are part of an overall modal shift in the transport network, and not merely a businessman’s plaything. One thing remains sure however – in the drive towards Net Zero, innovation is the name of the game.