FEV expects a high growth potential for the Urban Air Mobility market and sees the opportunity for automotive players to make business in this multi-billion-dollar market and diversify their product portfolio.
Mobility is a determining factor for the quality of life in urban areas. The expected doubling of the urban passenger mobility demand by 2050 will push conventional ground based transportation to their limits. Moreover, their enhancement is limited due to large investments, footprints, and lead-times required. Metropolitan areas and cities will consequently face significant challenges with regards to pollution, noise, and congestion.
The sky however, has been successfully used for safe and time-efficient long-haul transportation for decades. Already today, conventional helicopters operate as air taxis in cities like New York City. An 8-minute flight from JFK Airport to Lower Manhattan costs around $200 USD per passenger using the Uber Copter Air Taxi Service. Also, Blade offers an Airport Pass for an annual fee of $295 USD, with which each flight between Manhattan and NYC airports costing $145 USD. Comparing this with ground transportation, the same trip costs $55 USD for a regular taxi and $120 to $180 USD for a more comfortable Uber Black Service, but takes 55 to 100 minutes.
Recent technological developments allow breakthrough of eVTOL aircraft
The high (operational) costs of a helicopter are the key driver behind the high fares. Next to this, noise emissions limit the uptake of current air taxi services. In the recent past, start-ups and established aviation companies developed new disruptive aircraft concepts: electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) capable aircraft equipped with Distributed Electric Propulsion (DEP). The number of eVTOL related patents has vastly increased in the last years, with USA, China, and Germany being at the forefront. The enabler for eVTOL technology is based on the recent technology improvements in battery technology, electric motors, and automation technology, leading to several advantages compared to conventional helicopters: They promise a safer, quieter, and significantly less expensive operation. With the availability of eVTOL technology, Uber forecasts significantly less than $5 USD per passenger mile for their Uber Air Service in the near term.
Due to the advantages of eVTOL aircraft, a high growth of the eVTOL market is expected. With FEV Consulting’s background from a major near-term Urban Air Mobility (UAM) program for a megacity’s transport authority and their deep eVTOL industry insights, the company forecasted the global eVTOL fleet size through 2040. The projection takes several parameters such as the economic attractiveness of eVTOL air taxis, environmental conditions, underlying regulations, policies, and infrastructure into account. Furthermore, cultural probability of technology adaption and the number of expected, credible eVTOL manufacturers were considered.
The market of eVTOL concepts is broadly diversified, with a common set of technologies such as electric propulsion. More than 80 start-ups and established aircraft manufacturers are currently developing over one hundred eVTOL aircraft concepts. Having extensively reviewed these concepts, FEV Consulting expects that less than 20 percent are suitable for aerial ride sharing and are developed by credible players which have the capability to drive its concept through full development and certification into operation. Different use-cases are a key driver behind the broad conceptual diversification of the eVTOL aircraft landscape. The main differentiator is the aircraft architecture with the related propulsion concept: It can be distinguished between the multirotor, the lift & cruise and the tilt rotor/wing architecture. While there are also differences in the energy source, i.e. pure electric and hybrid systems, the following paragraphs focus on the electric motor.
Performance related requirements differ between the architecture concepts due to different cruise speeds and Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) requirements, but also due to the number of electric motors. Power and torque densities along with the e-motors’ efficiencies are very important to aircraft due to their direct effect on the overall efficiency, range, and consequently on the overall mission suitability. Figure 5 provides an overview of the power density of electric motor concepts from suppliers with aviation activities compared to aviation certified piston engine or turbine applications. It shows why distributed electric propulsion becomes so popular for eVTOL, but is also attractive for small general aviation applications, since state-of-the-art electric motors can achieve weight savings compared to piston engines.
In addition, electric motors for aviation applications must be highly reliable because malfunctions can directly lead to flight critical emergency situations. Against the background of the operational concept, high availability and long maintenance intervals are required. Since the aircraft are lightweight designs mainly based on composites, the Noise Vibration Harshness (NVH) of electric motors should be at a minimum to avoid transferred vibrations to the fuselage and structural components. Using electric motors for these kinds of new aircraft concepts instead of complex turbines, could offer an opportunity for automotive players with activities in the electrification of powertrains.
Urban Air Mobility is an attractive pathway to enter the aviation industry for automotive players
The aerospace industry is characterized by low quantities and low economies of scale compared to the automotive industry with its cost-efficient mass production. The top-selling Airbus A320 was sold 417 times in 2018, which is less than a tenth of the sales volume a BMW 3 series has per week with 366,475 units in 2018.
Key components such as the propulsion system are flight critical and can lead to emergency situations, catastrophic events, and high liability claims. Therefore, such products must comply to the certification specifications defined by regulatory authorities such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States of America or the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). The certification requires among others, extensive testing, validation, and related detailed documentation and reports. Furthermore, a certificate approving the manufacturing of the type certified product is required and all produced components must be highly traceable. These certification and compliance requirements lead to the high development and industrialization effort which needs to be allocated to the low quantities.
On the contrary, the automotive market is characterized by its high sales numbers and the high competition which demands for a cost-efficient mass production and lean organization and development processes. The effort for obtaining a type approval for a car is different to aviation, but the new eVTOL aircraft are also less complex compared to commercial civil aviation aircraft like the A320. Consequently, the capabilities of the automotive industry can help to reduce the costs, make air taxi fares more affordable for a broader public and can contribute to the expected market growth of the eVTOL industry.
At first, automotive players might perceive the requirements for certification as a high entry barrier. However, the supplier base for technologies, such as batteries and electric motors is less established compared to conventional aviation products. The profound experience automotive players already have from their products being used by end-customers on the road should not be underestimated since they provide real-world durability data. The acquired knowledge might help to establish a high level of confidence for respective authorities to certify products from new players. In addition, automotive players develop their products according to (automotive) ISO and SAE standards, which are similar to related standards of the aviation industry. Furthermore, the automotive industry is well experienced regarding supply chain, logistics, and production processes which will be required for a higher output compared to today’s conventional aviation industry. Consequently, there might be a gap, but not a cold start to bring automotive products into the aviation market.