For Latin American Cities, Flying Cars Are Suddenly Within Reach
It may sound like science-fiction, but firms are already developing prototypes for this cheaper alternative to the helicopter. And for Latin America in particular, the sky's the limit for what Flying cars can bring.
SANTIAGO — Imagine taking a taxi — a flying taxi — to work. It sounds like the stuff of science-fiction like The Jetsons, the 1962 cartoon series set in 2062, but it may become reality sooner than we or filmmakers imagined.
Flying or eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) vehicles had their best year in a decade in 2021, as investor interest spiked, to the tune of $7 billion in investments. For Latin America in particular, they could be an opportunity to transform transportation and mobility in its congested cities.
Part of the investments went into founding Vertical Flight Society (VFS), a non-profit body to promote flying cars. VFS estimates there were $10 billion in investments in flying vehicles between 2010 and 2020, far above the $4 billion initially projected. Part of the surprising interest is because it is hoped flying cars will be considerably cleaner, greener and cheaper than the helicopter, currently the choice of an exclusive minority for traveling short distances.
The future's in the air
The market is potentially vast, and investment banks expect it to be worth trillions of dollars in the next decade. Its growth projections are thus of interest to plane-makers and ordinary investors, as well as some airlines, says Alberto Torrijos, an aeronautics partner with consultants Deloitte Spanish Latin America. There is a need for new types of mobility, he says, which will boost this disruptive technology.
A VFS report from January 2022 says 600 eVTOL models are being developed by 350 firms worldwide, with 200 new designs from 2021. Carlos Ozores, an aviation specialist and deputy head the ICF consulting firm, says these are early days. The models "are prototypes, without tested and certified products... and no earnings in sight." Flying vehicles are thus not about to become a mass mobility solution, for which they would first need to attain economies of scale through mass usage. Aviation consultant René Armas Maes says the vehicles may first be used in cargo shipments, at airports and even to move donor organs.
More optimistically, management consultants LEK Consulting think 50% of taxi rides of more than 15 kilometers could be in flying vehicles by 2040.
Among firms working on prototypes is the German company Lilium
Race to rise first
Planemakers taking an interest include Boeing, Airbus and Brazil's Embraer. Boeing may be the most innovative here, working with the firm Wisk on an unmanned vehicle, while Airbus has its "multicopter" concept or four-seat vehicle it hopes to try out in 2023. Embraer is designing its own model, which it hopes to fly by 2026. It already has non-binding orders for 1,735 vehicles from 17 clients, according to its website.
The Californian firm Joby Aviation developed a vehicle that could travel at the speed of 330 km/hour during trials in January 2022, though the prototype crashed in February. Other firms working on prototypes are the U.S. Archer Aviation, the German company Lilium and Britain's Vertical Aerospace.
In Latin America, the only airlines presently placing orders or announcing investments are Azul Linhas Aéreas Brasileiras and Gol Linhas Aéreas. The former signed an order with Lilium worth $1 billion for 220 six-seat eVTOLs to be delivered in 2025. The latter expects to receive 250 vehicles from Vertical Aerospace through a deal signed with an Irish plane-leasing firm Avolon.
São Paulo would be an ideal market, both for the density of its population and its road traffic
For Armas Maes, the interest of airlines is in providing a new product and optimizing earnings per passenger, though he says eVTOLs will initially likely only serve for transfers to the airlines' own terminals. Alberto Torrijos of Deloitte adds that, presently, the interest is mainly from airlines with an important business customer base, though services can later expand to ride-sharing, executive transfers inside cities or even deliveries.
Ozores says offering an "air taxi service" is currently too complicated and expensive for standard airlines, given uncertainties already affecting their core business. That may be why few regional airlines are showing an interest. Latam Airlines has no "tangible" plans to enter the sector soon, its CEO Roberto Alvo, recently told the website Aeronaves.com.
Beyond the big airlines, Brazil's Flapper, which offers regional charter flights, recently voiced interest in providing a flying taxi service in cities like Bogotá, Mexico City, Santiago de Chile and São Paulo. It has partnered with the U.S. firm Jaunt Air Mobility and will buy 25 EVTOLs, though it has not said yet when it would begin lifting passengers.
A regional market
Latin America is helicopter country. It is one of the biggest markets for the vehicle and has six of the world's 10 biggest city chopper fleets. It also has vast conurbations like Mexico City and São Paulo that need better, smooth and sustainable transportation.
São Paulo, a city of some 13 million residents, would be an ideal market for flying vehicles, both for the density of its population and its road traffic. It already has the world's biggest fleet of helicopter taxis with an average 1,200 flights a day, according to consultants Cowen Inc.
Flying cars will be as innovative as jet-engine planes were in the 1940s
Avolon is thus eying São Paulo and no other regional city for its flying taxi service plans. KPMG's report on "Aviation 2030: Air Taxi Readiness Index" found Brazil to be the only regional country remotely ready for such vehicles in terms of social and technical conditions, though still far behind countries like the United States or European states.
Demand will remove obstacles
For flying cars to take off, they must first overcome some basic obstacles like regulation, safe and efficient technology, service infrastructures and where to put them in cities. In Latin America, "every country has different levels of maturity in this race," says Torrijos. Ultimately, he believes demand will remove obstacles, though regulation may be the most complicated part, especially in countries that are already restrictive with drones.
Other issues in time will be "space management," or traffic controls as density increases, and energy use. Battery storage capacities are another challenge, says Torrijos.
The vehicles will also require pilots, possibly 60,000 by 2028, according to consultants McKinsey and Co. Whatever the obstacles, multiple manufacturers are already trying out models and the industry is seeking a regulatory framework for passenger transportation within two or three years. Flying cars will be as innovative as jet-engine planes were in the 1940s. The good news for operators is, once the market gets going, the sky's the limit.