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Can You Afford a Flying Car?

A flying car passes by the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Courtesy: Volocopter

Among the benefits the emerging urban air mobility industry has touted, and there are many – ecofriendly, electric-powered vehicles, travel-time savings, speedier emergency medical response times – one fly in the ointment, the flying elephant in the room, if you will, might just be vehicle price.

The average price of a car in the U.S. in 2020 was about US$40,000 (plus taxes and fees). But, the projected price range for a flying car, an eVTOL, is between US$1.5MM for a two-seater and US$4MM for a five-seater (without taxes and fees).

Forget about the most commonly cited barriers to the success of urban air mobility – aviation regulations, aural and visual noise, flight paths, demands on electric power grids to recharge batteries. The biggest hurdle to urban air mobility may be vehicle cost and whether, or if, UAM operations can be profitable.

Yes, as production volumes increase, vehicle costs are expected to decrease. But, when will those production numbers increase?

A flying car on the ground.

Courtesy: Lilium

Who will be the Henry Ford of flying cars, who manufactured his vehicles at a cost low enough so that even his factory line workers could afford them, thus making automobiles ubiquitous? Maybe it will be Joby Aviation or Lilium or Volocopter. Perhaps it will be Japan’s Skydrive. Or, maybe it will require regulators to step in as they did in aviation’s pre-deregulation days.

The notion behind the U.S.’s Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 was to lift the regulatory pricing burdens on airlines the government thought were stifling competition. The reality, some 40+ years later is that, instead of the dozens of airlines flying passengers across the U.S. in 1978, in 2021, there are essentially four U.S. airlines – American, Delta, United, and Southwest. The Vertical Flight Society currently lists more than 450 aircraft in development in its eVTOL Directory. Spoiler alert! They won’t all make it into production let alone onto a landing pad or a driveway.

In a 2020 paper, Factors Affecting the Adoption and Use of Urban Air Mobility, researchers from the Technical University Munich, University College London, and Bauhaus Luftfahrt e.V., related that studies conducted over the past decade showed that cost and time will be two of the noteworthy factors determining the successful adoption of urban air mobility. This is consistent with the European Union Aviation and Space Agency’s (EASA’s) findings that, urban air mobility developers must “Ensure that UAM fits with the notion of ‘public interest’ by making it affordable to all, and integrating it into the local (multimodal) mobility system/network accessible to all.”

A Joby eVTOL in the sky.

Courtesy: Joby Aviation

Maybe the per-aircraft cost is moot. Joby Aviation predicts that it will have nearly 3,000 aircraft ferrying passengers at a per-mile seat cost of US$3, “cheaper than an Uber Black.” Projecting an average load factor of 2.3 passengers in its four-passenger eVTOL, Joby Aviation believes each vehicle will gross more than US$6,000 per day, yielding US$1 million in profit annually.

So… if they build them – eVTOLs or hybrid VTOls — will we all come? Yes – when the price is right.

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Dave Clarke

Dave Clarke is a California-based writer who is fascinated by the way technology changes our lives.