Time and time again, tech companies have promised a future where commuters will be able to zip around in the flying cars from The Jetsons. And time and time again, that just hasn’t happened.
That’s because the practical engineering challenges are immense—building small, electrically powered vertical take-off and landing, or VTOL, aircraft would require a massive leap in technology over helicopters. It’s also because many of the business models proposed so far, such as Uber’s now-former “aerial ridesharing” unit Uber Elevate, have been patently ridiculous concepts amounting to not much more than speculative futurism. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman is nonetheless taking a big bet that the era of the flying taxi is coming in the foreseeable future, according to Axios.
According to Axios, Hoffman and Zynga founder Mark Pincus’s special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Reinvent Technology Partners reached a deal on Wednesday to buy Joby Aviation, the company that bought up Uber Elevate, in a deal that values the firm at $6.6 billion. (An SPAC is a corporate entity with no commercial operations formed for the specific purpose of acquiring private firms.)
Uber is an investor in Joby, and the company already has a strategic partnership with Toyota Motor Corp, according to Bloomberg. Per the terms of the deal reported by Axios, the deal includes $835 million in private investment in public equity, with Uber providing additional investment.
Joby claims to have solved some of the biggest engineering problems inherent to flying taxis, saying its electrically powered VTOL aircraft is quiet enough to fly in urban areas without causing massive noise pollution, can carry a pilot and four passengers at up to 220 miles per hour and has a range of 150 miles using existing battery tech. According to Axios, the company says it hopes to have the Federal Aviation Administration certify its air taxis for flight by 2023 and have a service operating by 2024, with Joby executive chair Paul Sciarra telling the site he believed getting a ride would be “a little under Uber Black pricing” to start.
A video released by Joby CEO and founder JoeBen Bevirt on Wednesday contained the first real public look at the company’s aircraft, revealing a few seconds of it taking off and flying.
Another video released on Wednesday showed a somewhat more impressive view of Joby’s eVTOL actually flying an appreciable distance high off the ground (in a rural area rather than the congested urban environments Joby intends to operate, of course).
It’s worth noting here that in 2019, Uber Elevate chief Eric Allison said it would be “more economically rational for you to fly than for you to drive” within three years. While the initial plan is for the craft to be piloted by humans—dodging the fantastical mass autonomous-flying ambitions of Uber, which couldn’t even get self-driving cars to work right—Joby will have to prove it is economically viable. The timeline would also require the FAA, which usually takes around 10 years to certify aircraft based on well-known tech, to approve an entirely new form of air transportation in crowded urban areas in just a few years.
As the Verge noted, Joby’s presentations for investors claimed that the aircraft would cost just $1.3 million to manufacture and generate $2.2 million in revenue a year, assuming 4,500 operating hours per year, of which 2,300 will be spent in flight with an average of 2.3 customers per trip. For comparison, a “busy” Cessna 172 doing private flights at an aeroclub does about 500 to 600 flight hours a year, aviation expert Michele Travierso tweeted. The presentation estimates the total cost of “pilots, landing fees, customer service, and maintenance” will come to around $1.2 million per plane annually, with Travierso suggesting the company was optimistic about the level of maintenance required.
As the Verge noted, other flying taxi companies appear to be in disarray. Google co-founder Larry Page-backed Kitty Hawk reorganized in 2019 amid financial trouble and technical issues ranging from malfunctions to battery fires, while German company Lilium’s prototype craft caught fire last year.
Correction: 3/2/2021 at 1:45 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated that Joby’s plans call for its craft to fly 4,500 hours per year; that’s actually the total amount of operating time, of which 2,300 hours would be spent in the air. We regret the error.