VW has revealed a working concept of an electric Vertical Take Off and Landing (eVTOL) craft, developed in China, with a planned range of up to 124 miles.
The automaker sees electric craft of this type serving as VIP air taxis in China’s larger cities, bypassing traffic in minutes.
The eVTOL startup world has noticeably lost some of the momentum gained in the second half of the past decade, as projected demand for air taxis has cooled.
Quite a few startups and automakers alike had promised us flying cars during the giddy VTOL tech boom of the 2010s. By the middle of the decade there were almost as many different concepts as major airlines, each with a different number of propellers and passengers. It wasn’t long before barely solvent ride-hailing apps were cutting slick ads showing us our gleaming air-taxi future, with a rooftop pickup just a few clicks away on your phone.
Rosy promises about the latest rounds of funding had noticeably dried up in the pandemic era that, incidentally, put the entire concept of commuting in dense cities into question, albeit briefly. Suddenly, the busy world of the future did not need maximum efficiency to save time by getting into what amounted to a giant drone—the future now seems to be more about serene travel in your autonomous, electric car.
Or is it?
Volkswagen is among those industrial giants that still see a future in electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) craft. A few days ago the automaker unveiled its first passenger V.MO drone prototype, nicknamed Flying Tiger.
The craft, shaped vaguely like a catamaran with a passenger compartment suspended below the structure and a length of 36.7 feet, uses eight exposed rotors along its top portion to remain aloft, with an additional two for horizontal flight in a pusher configuration.
VW says in production form, the craft will be able to carry four passengers and their luggage over a distance of up to 124 miles, or 200 kilometers.
“Through this pilot project, we are bringing Volkswagen’s long tradition of precision engineering, design, and innovation to the next level, by developing a premium product that will serve the vertical mobility needs of our future tech-savvy Chinese customers,” said Stephan Wöllenstein, CEO of Volkswagen Group China. “This is a pioneering project which our young team of Chinese experts started from scratch—they are working with new design concepts and materials while developing new safety standards, disrupting and innovating every step of the way.”
Why is this happening in China?
The simple answer may have to do with projected demand in very large cities, a growing number of which have about 10 million residents and a handful over 20 million, making air mobility a more scalable, demand-driven concept compared to relatively fewer point-to-point use cases in Mexico, Canada, and the US.
“In the first phase of its commercial use, V.MO is likely to be pitched as a premium product for high-net worth tech-savvy Chinese customers, for example for VIP air shuttle services,” the automaker says. “eVTOL air vehicles will be able to transport passengers more quickly and efficiently than current conventional means of terrestrial transport and with greater flexibility.”
The automaker plans to undertake several flight tests later in 2022 to tweak the working concept, and to test a future, improved prototype next summer.
All the usual hurdles are still there when it comes to making eVTOL air taxis feasible, beyond the engineering itself.
Unlike in the mid-2010s, air taxis now face competition from driverless, Level 4 EVs as a method of urban travel, which VW itself aims to put into service in 2024. The factor of cutting travel time isn’t quite there, but such taxis will still outpace other forms of public transportation, and can be introduced on a large scale, while also benefitting from bus lanes. eVTOL craft also face competition from plain old helicopters, which had never quite evolved into a regular method of travel despite decades of development and cost, and are still seen as being held back by high operating costs, complex maintenance, and generous noise levels.
Electric air taxis will also face growing pains, including investment in infrastructure, effective route planning, and initial high costs—hurdles that helicopters never quite overcame to achieve any sort of scale, even in cities like New York.
Will VW succeed in China where others have stalled?
“Our long-term aim is to industrialize this concept and, like a ‘Flying Tiger,’ break new ground in this emerging and fast-evolving new mobility market,” the automaker says.