Just a decade ago, flying cars were largely an unheard-of thing, except for a small circle of sci-fi-obsessed tech billionaires who were determined to reinvent human transportation. One of the concept’s earliest pioneers is Google co-founder Larry Page, who in 2010 funded a startup called Kitty Hawk to develop electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicles, or eVTOLs. These small, battery-powered aircraft don’t require runways for takeoff and landing and are much quieter than helicopters during flight, making them a perfect solution to urban traffic jams.
Kitty Hawk made eVTOL a reality, but didn’t have much success in building a viable business out of them. Nevertheless, it inspired a crop of new companies to join the game. Today, it’s estimated that there are at least 200 companies globally looking to put eVTOLs to various uses, from personal flying cars to urban air taxis.
One of the industry’s frontrunners is a direct spinoff from Kitty Hawk. In 2019, Kitty Hawk split off an autonomous eVTOL prototype called Cora and created a joint venture with Boeing called Wisk Aero.
Wisk is currently testing a two-seat vehicle that can fly without a pilot. The company is developing a bigger aircraft that could one day be deployed as urban air taxis—at a very affordable price.
Earlier this month, Observer interviewed Wisk’s CEO Gary Gysin, where he discussed the potential of urban eVTOLs and the roles of corporate backers, regulators, as well as competitors, in making air taxis a reality.
The problem eVTOL is trying to solve is the unpredictability of urban travel. In any major city today, it’s hard to predict how long it’ll take to get from point A to point B, even if it’s a short trip. With eVTOLs, you will be able to just fly right through and never be stuck in traffic.
Within air mobility, the biggest difference between eVTOLs and other new forms of transportation is affordability. For example, helicopters have been around for a long time, but they are really only accessible for premium customers. What we are trying to create an UberX type of service for everyday use, whether it’s going to work, visiting family or going to a special event.
How affordable are we talking about? Uber used to have an air taxi service in New York City that would cost $200 per person to fly from Lower Manhattan to JFK airport. Will Wisk’s air taxi service be priced comparably?
We are actually using UberX as a pricing model. So we are aiming at somewhere between $4 and $8 per passenger mile.
To be fair, the market will probably start at a higher price. But we are designing our eVTOLs to be 100 percent electric and self-flying, so the cost basis will be lower. I believe we will be able to drive the price point down faster than anybody else in the market.
eVTOL companies seem to be all cropping up at the same time. I’ve noticed that their prototypes on the market look very similar. Is there a technical explanation for that or are these companies simply imitating each other?
About a decade ago, there was a breakthrough in aerodynamics that made it possible to vertically lift an aircraft. You can think of it as transitioning a helicopter into something with a fixed wing.
As a spinoff from Kitty Hawk, our team has been developing eVTOL aircraft for 11 years. We had to go through a learning curve to find the optimal configuration of the aircraft. We have over 130 patents, probably the largest patent portfolio in the eVTOL industry. We are currently working on our 6th-generation vehicle, which will be certified to fly in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
There are probably hundreds of eVTOL startups out there. Many of them are looking to launch commercial flights in 2024 or sooner. How does Wisk distinguish itself from its competitors in this busy market?
We are probably unique in that we are not going to say when we will fly, because, at the end of the day, the FAA is the judge on when anybody flies. They tend not to be too thrilled with vendors committing to a specific date.
In this market, it typically takes about $2 billion in funding before you get the first aircraft certified. It’s not a venture capital play. It has to be a play with strategic partners who understand the long duration of aviation cycles—they are decade-long cycles. Then, you also need to have the right technical approach that can ultimately prove a safety case for the FAA.
It’s not the kind of game where you put some money in and get a return in two or three years. There may be a lot of startups entering this market. But I believe very few will actually make the journey. My estimate is that there might be only four or five players that will eventually survive this journey.
Speaking of the FAA, what has Wisk been doing to get them on board? What feedback have you got?
We are heavily engaged with the FAA across all their divisions. We have laid out our development timeline with them. The feedback we’ve received so far is really positive.
Safety is always the No.1 thing the FAA is concerned about. Our aircraft will not have a pilot, and the FAA really likes that for safety reasons.
We also have an arrangement with NASA. They are helping us with modeling and simulation of autonomous flight and evangelize that idea within the FAA.
Wisk was spun off as a joint venture between Kitty Hawk and Boeing. What’s the role of Boeing in your R&D and other aspects of operation?
The founders of Kitty Hawk wanted to find an aerospace partner who is able to commercialize its autonomous eVTOL, certify it and bring it to market. It’s sort of merging Silicon Valley innovation with an aerospace giant who has been there, done that.
Boeing is not just an investor. They are also an R&D partner. Boeing used to have a nice eVTOL prototype called PAV (Passenger Air Vehicle), which was also a two-seat aircraft. That effort is now merged with us on the joint development of our 6th-generation aircraft.