If the novelty of passengers boarding flying taxis at their neighborhood vertiports in just a few years sounds like the latest permutation of the Jetsons-style hype rife in the transportation technology industry, well, many experts share or have shared some skepticism.
“I met Jon at a mobility conference in Montreal,” says Anita Sengupta, a former NASA aerospace engineer responsible for the design of the supersonic parachute system that landed the Curiosity Rover on Mars. “He’s going on about making electric aviation cheap, and I’m like, ‘This is bullshit. I’m from aerospace and this is impossible.’ ”
She’s been converted into a believer. After the conference, the two became friends, and Sengupta eventually became an adviser to ASX. Now she is the company’s chief product officer.
Others also have warmed to air mobility. A June report from consulting firm Deloitte noted that, after “decades of false starts,” new classes of aircraft are emerging that could make urban air mobility a reality. By 2025, the study projects a $1 billion market for intracity passenger service via electric or hybrid-electric vertical takeoff and landing, a figure that reaches $13.8 billion by 2040. Meanwhile, Deloitte expects the intercity passenger market for such vehicles to grow from $2.6 billion to $3.9 billion.
Projected growth underscores “significant business opportunities for aerospace and manufacturing industries to reexamine product mixes and business models,” says the report, released ahead of June’s Paris Air Show.
“These will open up new markets that helicopters can’t service today because of price and sound,” says Robin Lineberger, head of Deloitte’s global aerospace and defense industry practice. “You’ll see some people think that all these aircraft have the same flight characteristics, and that it’s one size fits all. One size doesn’t fit all. How much energy you need, how much weight you carry and how far you want to go — that’s the design box, and aircraft are being developed for different corners of that box.”
Dozens of companies have ventured into the vertical takeoff and landing realm in recent years, including Airbus, Uber and Bell, which captured attention in January at CES with the unveiling of its Nexus air taxi concept that would use a hybrid propulsion system. Others include the Larry Page-backed Kitty Hawk, Volvo’s Terrafugia subsidiary and Joby Aviation, which has received investment from the Toyota AI Ventures fund.
For those pursuing electrification, batteries present some technical challenges and perhaps regulatory uncertainty — namely, how will federal fuel-reserve requirements be measured in charge instead of fuel. But there are other, less obvious complexities.
“Electrification is a net new play or need for the aviation industry,” Lineberger says. “They’ll have to work on building the supply chain for that, and if this is tens of thousands of vehicles, that’s not how the industry builds today. That supply chain velocity is totally new.”
From the cradle of the auto industry, that’s exactly where ASX plans to excel.
“This is not aviation in the traditional commercial jet sense at high altitude,” Sengupta says. “This is general aviation travel for the masses. And when you look at mass production, the car is a supercomplicated device that costs almost nothing. So for us, the proof is in that pudding.”