Over the past decade, flying cars have grown from a billionaire’s moonshot hobby to a very attainable goal, thanks to the rapid progress of electrification in urban transportation and serious money poured into this novel technology.
Flying cars, or electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles, are different than airplanes or helicopters in that they don’t require a runway or a special takeoff and landing site. Most eVTOL aircraft in the making also have a much shorter range and lower speed than a typical commercial plane, because they are designed to provide quick door-to-door transportation in urban areas.
There are no flying cars in operation anywhere in the world just yet. A crop of startups are vying to win the first-mover advantage in the nascent urban air taxi market, a sector estimated to be worth $1.5 trillion by 2040, according to Morgan Stanley.
Below, we’ve rounded up four of the most promising eVTOL makers in the market and ranked them by how close they are to making urban flying cars a reality.
Founded in 2012
Headquartered in Tokyo, Japan
Estimated delivery: 2023
Last August, Tokyo-based SkyDrive, a startup backed by Toyota, successfully test flew an eVTOL vehicle called SD-03 with a pilot on board in Japan, marking the world’s first crewed flight of a flying car. The single-seater prototype took off to about six feet into the sky and hovered at a low speed for five minutes in a netted area.
SkyDrive aims to ultimately raise SD-03’s speed to 40 mph and extend flight duration to 30 minutes. The company plans to roll out a two-seater commercial model sometime in 2023. The Japanese government is also targeting 2023 to introduce a flying taxi service in dense cities like Tokyo and Osaka.
Observer’s Verdict: SkyDrive has the best chance to deliver its promise on time. With a relatively low speed and range, SkyDrive’s eVTOL aircraft is the least ambitious in this roundup from an engineering standpoint. Aside from the fact that it’s the world’s first company to ace a crewed test, its corporate goal is also well aligned with the vision of the Japanese government.
Founded in 2016
Headquartered in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Estimated delivery: 2024
Joby has been testing its eVTOL aircraft at a private airfield in Northern California. Its latest prototype can fly up to 150 miles at 200 mph on a single charge. The company aims to have an operational air taxi service by 2024. The SPAC deal will provide $1.6 billion in cash proceeds to fund the company toward that goal.
Observer’s Verdict: With the SPAC listing in sight, Joby is the best-funded startup of the bunch. Yet, it’s too early to tell whether it’s the beginning of a new era or just another bubble in the overheated SPAC market. Joby is also the most conservative in predicting delivery, so a lot can happen between now and 2024.
Founded in 2018
Headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif.
Estimated delivery: 2023
Archer Aviation is developing eVTOL vehicles at a facility near Palo Alto Airport. The company plans to unveil a prototype that can fly 60 miles at a speed of 150 mph later this year and start volume production in 2023.
The startup has won the attention of United Airlines, which has committed to buying $1 billion of Archer aircraft as soon as they roll off of the assembly line. The carrier has the option to purchase $500 million more if the first batch turns out satisfactory.
Archer is going public later this year via a SPAC merger with Atlas Crest Investment Corp. valuing the startup at $3.8 billion. The combined company will list on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker “ACHR.”
Observer’s Verdict: Born in the heart of Silicon Valley, Archer shares many characteristics with Joby (early stage, multibillion-dollar SPAC deal), except that it has even less of a track record and not as much funding. Yet, the UA pre-order is a strong vote of confidence. Archer just needs to make sure the deal stays afloat until it actually delivers.
Founded in 2006; Acquired by Geely in 2017.
Headquartered in Woburn, Mass. (near Boston)
Estimated delivery: 2023
Boston-based Terrafugia’s flying car offering is a bit different than all the eVTOL vehicles mentioned above. The company is developing two models simultaneously: a hybrid ground-air vehicle called “Transition” and a full-scale flying car called the TF-X.
By far, Terrafugia has made more progress with Transition than TF-X. In January, the ground-air hybrid model received a Special Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) airworthiness certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration, which allows the vehicle to fly in U.S. air space. It has yet to clear the FAA’s road use approval, which is expected next year.
Transition has a pair of wings that can fold up to fit in a one-car garage. The latest prototype can fly up to 500 miles at a sped of 100 mph.
Terrafugia was founded by a team of MIT engineers in 2006. The company was bought by Chinese auto giant Geely in 2017 and is in the process of moving operations to China.
Observer’s Verdict: While the FAA certificate is a huge token of approval, an organization-wide relocation adds to uncertainties faced by the company. It’s also worth noting that Terrafugia has missed delivery timeline several times. It originally promised to begin sale in 2015 and then revised the goal twice to 2018 and 2019.
Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated the year by which Morgan Stanley projects the urban air taxi market to be worth $1.5 trillion.