Last week Toyota Motor Corporation announced it was getting into the urban air taxi game the best way imaginable, by investing in a company that had already been developing electric air vehicles for such applications for awhile, in this case Joby Aviation, which has been noodling over this stuff for about a decade. This is a sign, one would assume, of critical mass in the segment having been achieved, just as it was before with announcements by Airbus, Boeing, Embraer and others, including NASA, investing in this segment. Well, it might be more accurate to say that they're investing in either exploring this segment or in appearing to be interested. The latter is no joke. There are numerous, intangible, culturally important rewards for a company to that makes a lot of carbon- emissions gasoline-powered cars to at least get its pants cuffs green.
It won't be cheap, either. In this case, Joby says that Toyota will invest almost $400 million and “… will share expertise in manufacturing, quality, and cost controls to support the development and production...” of the aircraft.
But there are bigger takeaways to the whole affair than Toyota probably understands.
To start with, the vehicle is really cool, which it knows, but kind of important to go beyond its sexiness and get to its usefulness and applicability. It’s an electric-powered multicopter tilt-rotor, a four-passenger-and-one-pilot craft. The company claims it will do 200 mph (we’re dubious) in go-fast mode, and that it will be able to land and take off vertically. With a range of 150 miles (statute, we assume), its range and speed combination would be astounding if it were to come true, though it's surely not possible given the state of the (battery) art.
Not that physics seems to slow down such programs. Joby has been working with the FAA towards type certification for a couple of years now and says a certification program “typically takes 3-5 years.” That’s not really true, though. They might “typically” take that long for aircraft within an established category. This is not that. How long will it take for a design unlike anything the FAA has ever signed off? Your guess is as good as mine, that is, as long as your guess is that it will take a lot longer than 3-5 years.
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Joby does seem to be aware that starting operations in and around city centers will be problematic. If city-center aerial transportation is to be a reality, you need somewhere to land these things. Building billion-dollar city center multicopter ports is fun stuff for artists to envision, but the challenges behind getting them done shouldn't be underestimated. Is it impossible? I don’t know, but on the spectrum from “doable” to “impossible,” it's touching edges with the latter side of the realm. In a sign that it might understand this, Joby plans to initially operate the craft under a conventional charter certificate which, again, is an extremely complicated undertaking, not to mention that it has never been done with an electric aircraft of any kind before. Never. Anywhere.
There’s one huge, quantifiable and believable plus: The craft is quiet, “100 times quieter than conventional aircraft during takeoff and landing, and near-silent when flying over,” the company claims. Helicopter noise is bad for business, and cutting that to almost nothing would be a game changer. If they can make everything else here happen, which remains a giant if.
Moreover, is noise even the biggest concern of city dwellers? It's top two, for sure, but I’d argue the bigger fear is their own safety. Even though denizens of urban centers are used to three-ton panel vans whizzing by their elbows at 40 mph, the idea of an aircraft falling on them is somehow fundamentally different.
So, of critical importance is that the aircraft itself is pretty big. It’s got to be in order to carry all the batteries it needs to fly for 150 miles (again, not that I believe it runs the risk of that happening) and five people and their carryon items. So it's not a small aircraft. It is, in fact, not any smaller than many existing conventional helicopters, so it's my guess that it would probably hurt just as much if it fell on you.
That said, the real news here is that Toyota is underwriting some really cool new aircraft design. An electric tilt-rotor multicopter that’s way quieter than conventional helicopters would be a game changer. Just don’t expect it to whizz by overhead in your downtown area any time soon. Think 2030s, if ever. In the meantime, it's fun to dream and do a little science along the way.