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Could the introduction of eVTOLs be as transformative for aviation as the advent of the DC-3 in the 1930s? That was the prediction of Andre Stein, CEO of eVTOL company Eve at this year’s SXSW Festival.
eVTOLs, or so-called electric air taxis, have featured prominently at SXSW.
In addition to Eve, which was spun out of Embraer, a number of other major eVTOL companies are in Austin, Texas. That includes Hyundai-owned Supernal and Wisk, whose main investor is Boeing.
Both took part in an all-female panel, looking at the advanced air mobility revolution. That panel very much echoed Andre Stein’s earlier points about the transformative nature of eVTOLs.
Rather than just being a means of transport for the rich to get from city centres to airports, the panel identified a broad range of other use cases, ranging from the potential to connect rural communities, to a tool that the emergency services can use.
Moderated by Karina Perez from the Aerospace Industries Association, the session featured Diana Cooper from Supernal, Becky Tanner from Wisk and Abigail Smith from the FAA.
Some eVTOL companies have very ambitious certification targets. For example, both Archer and Joby have a late 2024 or early 2025 deadline, while Eve is looking to be up and running by 2026. In contrast, Supernal and Wisk are taking a slower approach. Supernal has a 2028 target date, while Wisk, which is developing an autonomous eVTOL rather than a piloted one, has deliberately set no deadline.
But, with agreements in Australia already in place, Becky Tanner said that Wisk certainly intends to be flying by the 2032 Brisbane Olympics. One reason that both companies gave for the slower approach was the need to get the right infrastructure in place, to work with local authorities and build broad social acceptance.
Once that is done, Supernal’s Diana Cooper said that eVTOLs could be “an equaliser for communities left behind by transport policies.” Examples include both major urban conurbations, like LA, where highways slice through different areas. As well as more rural areas.
In Diana Cooper’s view, building Vertiports to handle eVTOLs will be simpler than building new roads and transport lines. And of course, by doing so, and taking cars off the road, you in turn reduce emissions.
Related to that, Becky Tanner spoke of a future where fewer and fewer people may own their own car. Instead, they will tap into a shared mobility network that ranges from electric scooters at the bottom, to car ride-sharing services, all the way up to eVTOLs.
With SXSW having a film and television, as well as a technology strand, the panellists spoke at length about the need to get the public behind these new electric air taxis, and the role popular culture can play in doing so.
Diana Cooper pointed out that the first Top Gun movie had resulted in a huge spike in US naval recruitment, to emphasise that point. Unfortunately, she felt that right now electric taxis as well as its much smaller cousin, drones, largely seem to be used by TV and film villains. As a result, Cooper wondered if a narrative shift is needed.
Finally, rather than exacerbate the pilot shortage, the panel wondered if eVTOLs could actually provide a solution. Electric air taxi pilots will largely be able to go home every night, unlike many airline pilots. The cost will also be much lower when it comes to training. As a result, eVTOLs could be a way to provide a new entry-level stage to a wider aviation and pilot career path.
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