Inside the high-stakes race to build world’s first flying taxi
Nov 21, 2019
The Lilium prototype flying taxi in a hangar in Wessling, Germany.
Photograph: Felix Schmitt/The New York Times
‘This is the perfect means of transportation, something that can take off
and land everywhere’
Inside an aircraft hangar about 30km (20 miles) from central Munich, Daniel
Wiegand lifted the door of a prototype that he said would become one of the
world’s first flying taxis. He’s coy about how much it cost to build –
“several million,” he says, but promises that within five years a fleet of
them could provide a 10-minute trip from Manhattan to Kennedy International
Airport for $70 (€63).
A lot is riding on his aircraft. Wiegand (34) is the chief executive and a
founder of Lilium, one of the most promising and secretive start-ups in the
global race to build an all-electric aircraft that will – regulators and
public opinion willing – move passengers above cities.
“This is the perfect means of transportation, something that can take off
and land everywhere,” says Wiegand (pronounced VEE-gand). “It’s very fast,
very efficient and low noise.”
Expectations that aerial taxis will be a reality in the coming years are
quickly building. Companies like Lilium are testing their machines, laying
the groundwork for wider production and starting discussions to gain support
from government officials.
At least 20 companies are in the market, which Morgan Stanley estimates will
top €770 billion by 2040. Larry Page, the billionaire co-founder of Google,
is financially backing Kitty Hawk, a company run by the first engineers on
Google’s autonomous car. Boeing and Airbus have projects under way.
Carmakers including Daimler, Toyota and Porsche are investing in the sector.
Uber is developing an air taxi service, with plans to open by 2023 in Los
Angeles, Dallas and Melbourne, Australia.
Yet saying your aircraft could fly over Manhattan in five years doesn’t mean
it will. Building durable jets at a reasonable cost still presents
engineering and technical challenges. And a long process awaits with
regulators, including the US Federal Aviation Administration, that will need
to weigh safety concerns.
“The question is can we build a platform that is broadly accessible to
everybody and is not just a rich person’s toy, and can we build it so quiet
that people on the ground aren’t annoyed by it?” says Kitty Hawk chief
executive Sebastian Thrun.
Lilium, which has raised more than €100 million from investors, illustrates
the high-wire act of the companies trying to live up to the hype.
The black-and-white aircraft shown by Wiegand is less “Jetsons”-like flying
car than a glider, with a carbon fibre body and 11m wingspan. Like several
other flying taxis in development, it is battery powered, providing a range
of 300km and a top speed of nearly 305km/h. Inside the oval cabin will
eventually be plush seats and other comforts for four passengers and a
The engines are packed inside four wings with flaps that rotate so the
aircraft can take off and land vertically like a helicopter. But it is
quieter than a helicopter, so it could potentially land in some areas
traditionally off limits to aircraft.
search evdl on Lilium
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