Can Flying Taxis Live Up to the Hype?

MUNICH — Inside an airplane hangar about 20 miles from central Munich, Daniel Wiegand lifted the door of a prototype that he stated would turn out to be one in all the world’s first flying taxis. He’s coy about how a lot it price to construct — “several million,” he says — however guarantees that inside 5 years a fleet of them may present a 10-minute journey from Manhattan to Kennedy International Airport for $70.

Loads is using on his airplane. Mr. Wiegand, 34, is the chief govt and a founding father of Lilium, one in all the most promising and secretive start-ups in the international race to construct an all-electric plane that can — regulators and public opinion prepared — transfer passengers above cities.

“This is the perfect means of transportation, something that can take off and land everywhere,” Mr. Wiegand (pronounced VEE-gand) stated. “It’s very fast, very efficient and low noise.”

Expectations that aerial taxis shall be a actuality in the coming years are shortly constructing. Companies like Lilium are testing their machines, laying the groundwork for wider production and starting discussions to gain support from government officials.

The black-and-white aircraft shown by Mr. Wiegand is less “Jetsons”-like flying car than a glider, with a carbon fiber body and 36-foot wingspan. Like several other flying taxis in development, it is battery powered, providing a range of 186 miles and a top speed of nearly 190 miles per hour. Inside the oval cabin will eventually be plush seats and other comforts for four passengers and a pilot.

The engines are packed inside four wings with flaps that rotate so the aircraft can take off and land vertically like a helicopter. But it is quieter than a helicopter, so it could potentially land in some areas traditionally off limits to aircraft.

The costs of the jets may eventually fall to several hundred thousand dollars each, Mr. Wiegand said. And with lower maintenance costs because there are fewer mechanical components, rides should cost roughly the same as an Uber or a taxi ride. Insurance companies have told him that they will provide him with risk coverage.

If successful, he said, the jets will transform urban transportation, with customers using Lilium’s app to book a flight from a network of small airports that connect suburbs, college towns and other hubs to cities. Imagine, he said, jets connecting areas across California or southern Germany that don’t have high-speed train lines.

Eric Allison, the head of Uber’s flying taxi effort, said the technological hurdles were less complex than for autonomous vehicles; there is less traffic in the air, and the first generations of the aircraft will have pilots.

Still, Mr. Allison said, no company has received government certification to fly commercially.

“That’s a tall order,” he said.

Then there are the many other obstacles to overcome. Battery technology limits how far the vehicles can fly. Building a prototype is different from starting mass production. And the price of the machines, and operating them, needs to be low enough to make rides affordable for customers.

Regulators could slow development by limiting the number of takeoffs and landings on desirable routes. There aren’t enough air traffic controllers now to handle a big influx of flights across cities. One fatal accident and demand could dry up.

“This is going to be a test of staying power — an ability to lose money, an ability to ride out a failure,” said Adam Jonas, a lead author of the Morgan Stanley report on the industry. “Many will fail.”

Lilium is years away from making money and, with more than 300 employees and an expensive research and development budget, is burning through cash. Mr. Wiegand said it would have to raise more money.

“It’s not enough to just build a nice prototype and fly it around,” he said. “What we really need to be successful is building a company that’s capable of designing, certifying, manufacturing and operating these aircraft in very large scale.”

Lilium has said little publicly beyond releasing a few engineering specifications and declaring that it will be carrying customers by 2025. It is seeking certification for its jet from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and plans to do the same with the F.A.A. The hypothetical New York route is more of a long-term goal.

American rivals say they know little about Lilium beyond its hiring of experienced aviation executives from Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Raytheon to oversee areas such as manufacturing, quality control and procurement. Even Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor and a trained physicist, is intrigued. At an aviation conference last year, she stopped by Lilium’s booth and peppered Mr. Wiegand with questions about the battery, flight range and engines.

Mr. Wiegand said secrecy was necessary to keep rivals from learning too much. Unlike other jets that look similar to the small commercial drones that can be bought in a store, Lilium’s plane has packed 36 smaller engines in its rotating wings that act as thrusters for takeoffs, landings, and subtle movements forward and back. Encasing the engines in the wings reduces friction and noise.

“Nobody has one with the performance we have,” Mr. Wiegand said.

He came up with the idea for Lilium during college, working out the engineering specifications while many of his friends were out drinking. He founded the company with three others in 2015, borrowing money and persuading suppliers to provide some free parts to begin building a small prototype.

After proving it worked, they raised money from investors including Niklas Zennström, a co-founder of Skype who now runs Atomico, a venture capital firm in London. In 2017, the Chinese internet giant Tencent led an investment of $90 million.

Nobody has flown inside Lilium’s jet. Test flights are done remotely from the ground. But Mr. Wiegand, who was flying gliders at age 14, promises to be one of the first.

“I was flying long before I was allowed to drive a car,” he said.

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