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May 20, 2024
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This is a Guest Post. The writer wishes to remain anonymous.

The media and the general world seem to take for granted that electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, functioning like air taxis, replacement helicopters, or even short-range regional transports, are becoming a reality. There is no shortage of great press and news media and no dearth of breathless excitement about the breakthroughs that seem to be occurring daily. Joby, Archer, Vertical, Skyflight, Ehang, Volocopter, Lillium, Beta…. Tens of billions have been poured into eVTOL to date.

Here is where we are: not a single eVTOL company has demonstrated a single mission that met a “normal” predicted profile for range, speed, and payload. Not. One.

We get plenty of PR tidbits:

All we have seen is that common electric drones have been scaled up. They get bigger. But when the payload is added, the entire proposition of eVTOL fails. Catastrophically. This is why there are no bomber drones or fighter drones. As the payload grows, the need for battery weight grows ever faster, which is why the electric drones that dominate the Ukrainian battlegrounds are small. They need to be big enough to carry their own systems and explosives.

Bigger drones don’t work because the batteries are not there. Not even close. Not even within an order of magnitude close.

Look at the difference in power/kg. In a car, you can get away with it. But aircraft have to lift that weight and keep it up.

Even without vertical lift (using a plane that needs a runway), electric cars are faster over longer trips than electric aircraft. Here is one recent example  For a mere 300 km run, the Lucid took seven hours, and the airplane eight. But taking off conventionally is much easier (and more energy efficient) than doing it vertically.

Holman Jenkins recently wrote in the WSJ:

It’s a good time to remember what the late evolutionist John Tooby, who died in November, taught us about “coalitional instincts.”

His most important insight was that “stupid” or “weird” ideas are actually more powerful in rallying coalitional solidarity than truthful ones, because truthful ones can be recognized by any rational person.

“The more biased away from neutral truth,” he wrote, “the better the communication functions to affirm coalitional identity.”

“Coalition-mindedness,” he added, “makes everyone, including scientists, far stupider in coalitional collectivities than as individuals.”

The eVTOL world is a coalitional collective, with everyone unwilling to point out that the emperor is buck nekkid. It is the obvious truth that cannot be spoken. So everyone assumes that eVTOL must work – because everyone else also seems to think so.

Don’t get me wrong: electric aviation is undoubtedly coming – I have visual proof!

Some pundits will take a critical view of things other than technological limits. Here, for example, is a criticism of the business case.

Whoa, Nellie! The Archer order book confirms what we already know about UAM… it will never become a congestion-busting mass transportation option for the everyday commuter, at least in my lifetime.

Simply because the vehicle acquisition cost (price) will probably be sky-high, to begin with, and the notion that an operator can dilute such a sizable expenditure with insanely high levels of utilization is severely flawed, given the numerous and seemingly insurmountable obstacles that will likely prevent this.

Archer just released their order book info in their Shareholder Letter today. Do the math – it shows their Midnight eVTOL is uniformly priced at $5 million a copy. This is far above the $1.2 million price tag suggested in the Uber white paper (remember that?), which also projected a cost per passenger seat mile of $2.97 based on an annual utilization of 2,080 flight hours.

I think an update using this latest pricing data should project a cost per passenger seat mile in the double-digit range, say $10 or more. This translates to a ticket price of more than $266 for a typical intra-urban trip of 20 miles, assuming an average load of 3 pax on a four-seater like the Midnight.

Please don’t tell me this can be reduced by further increasing the utilization and amortizing the vehicle acquisition cost across even more flight hours than 2,080 as initially projected. Remember, that calculation strained to deliver high-end pricing competitive with Uber black service. Quadrupling utilization to deliver the same cost per passenger seat mile is a ridiculous proposition to say the least.

So, with pricing at these levels, it should be pretty clear the Western version of UAM will translate to a premium service for the well-heeled and corporate types. That’s a far cry from the democratization of aerial mobility we were sold.

In a nutshell: At $5 million a copy, eight eVTOLs carrying three passengers apiece cost the same to acquire as an entire 737 or A320 (about $40 million)—which carries 180 passengers! When you include range and flights per day (passenger seat miles), the difference is so huge that it beggars belief.

Here is an easy way to explain the gap between eVTOL fantasy and reality.

Volocopter announced it will transport athletes at the Olympics this coming summer (despite only having demonstrated a crewed four-minute flight @ 18 mph thus far). It gives the stats for its simplest model as follows.

Volocopter: Max takeoff weight: 1,984 lb, Max payload: 440 lb, Range: 19 nm, Max airspeed: 59 kt (remember: they have yet to fly 440 pounds 19 miles). The 37-foot-wide vehicle claims a cruise speed of 62 mph.

Here is a simple comparison to an existing product, a Robinson R44 Cadet helicopter.

Empty weight: 1437 lb. Max takeoff weight: 2200 lbs. Payload 586 pounds. Cruise speed 123 mph Range 300 nm

Compared to the Volocopter, the helicopter has the same empty weight but carries 150 pounds more, flies twice as fast, over 15 times as far, and has a rotor span of 33’ (compared to the Volocopter’s 37’!). And that is for a helicopter that has been in service since 1992!

The contrasts become even starker if we take a new, modern helicopter like an HX50. The HX50 is expected to cruise at 161 mph, carry 1760 pounds, and fly over 700nm. The aircraft has about the same footprint (on the ground, measured including rotorspan) as the Volocopter.

Oh, and it will cost less, too. An R44 costs $500k. An HX50 $800k. All the eVTOLs will be millions apiece.

What is the technical and business case for purchasing and flying an eVTOL instead of a helicopter?

And remember: the above comparison uses the promised specifications of the Volocopter, which have not yet been demonstrated, nor have the promises of any of the other eVTOL companies.

If you even try to find something simple like, “What is the longest Joby flight to date with full payload?” There is a shocking amount of smoke and mirrors.

It is all going to fold, whether it fades away slowly like so many other failed technological innovations that, ultimately, never worked, like Blockchain, Metaverse, and fuel cells, or whether it ends with a bang, as it did for the Nikola electric truck guy.

Thousands of people working in these companies are very, very good at what they do. Do they return to Boeing or Airbus, bringing innovation back into the industry? Do they leave aerospace? That is a lot of talent that will be adrift at some point.

We are also interested in what happens to the investment and user worlds. Do they become more cynical about change? Or simply more discriminating?

What we DO see as possible are hybrid aircraft, in which kerosene powers a well-tuned generator, which in turn electrically flies the aircraft.

Drones that carry big payloads fit in this category. See this very cool bird, for example.

Eminently suitable and sensible. Kaman is being taken private, and if they stick with it, I believe they have a winner here.

Sikorsky is also working on some new concepts that may work well.

The new HEX program by the Lockheed Martin subsidiary features three hybrid, autonomous rotorcraft. One is a conventional helicopter, while the second is a quadcopter with tiltable propulsion nacelles. But the party piece is a tilt-wing design that allows for vertical takeoffs and landings, as well as the ability to transition to winged horizontal flight for greater speed and range.

Sikorksky is very slow as a company, and these birds will probably never enter the market (in this form), but at least they have done the math and (quietly) come to the obvious conclusion: energy on aircraft is best stored as fuel.

That fuel can then be converted to electricity and used to fly an airplane.

author avatar
Addison Schonland
Co-Founder AirInsight. My previous life includes stints at Shell South Africa, CIC Research, and PA Consulting. Got bitten by the aviation bug and ended up an Avgeek. Then the data bug got me, making me a curious Avgeek seeking data-driven logic. Also, I appreciate conversations with smart people from whom I learn so much. Summary: I am very fortunate to work with and converse with great people.

22 thoughts on “The Coming eVTOL Collapse

  1. Great article Addison.
    We have been watching this misguided “coalitional collective” for years. These guys have sucked billions out of ignorant investors for the aviation industry, and they will give it a black eye. They have convinced these investors to buy into an idea that they can’t control because they rely on battery technology that they don’t understand and regulations that haven’t been formulated. It will be a disaster.
    There is huge, profitable, opportunity using improvements in the existing technology and infrastructure for operators who know how to make money with aircraft.

  2. I cannot agree more with ALL the content of your article.
    As for the link to Sikorsky (their article was published on 28 Feb 2024), you should know that my company Transcend Air Corporation (start up based in Boston USA) has been working on the exact same concept (tilting wing) for over 10 years !
    Please visit: https://www.transcend.aero/
    I would make myself available for any questions you might have:
    Bruno Esposito – Senior VP for International Relations & Business Development.

  3. The Volocopter idea for the Paris Olympics has run into the predictable problem of resistance from residents due to noise – but there is also another, surprising, objection. The French proletariat, always sensitive to the idea of ‘Egalité’, object to the idea that those with the money can bypass the Parisian traffic jams by jumping into air taxis while the rest of them sit fuming in the heat and the exhaust. Clearly this idea has a long way to go before it is universally accepted.

  4. Mr. Anonymous is right with all his claims in this article. Actually it is even worse. Even if electric cars technically may work, there is no business case, if the same financial constraints than on conventional cars are applied. And of course it is even more challenging for aircraft since they have to defy gravity. True, too.
    But there is a solution in 3D-mobility, which can help to mitigate existing issues with ground based traffic without denying the physical principals of aerodynamics, the energy density of batteries or basic rules of a business case. Keep it small, efficient and simple and meet the actual requirements of commuters for reducing the traffic chaos in every major city on this planet.

  5. The eVTOL industry is being pioneered by China, not the West. The market economics there are entirely different. Cities are already subsidising autonomous eVTOL operations there, including infrastructure costs. The revolution has already started.

  6. lol this article is based on complete nonsense. It’s sounds OK and he weaves some truth into the myriad lies, but he is not correct in multiple accounts. The anonymous writes is at best ill informed and at worst a memeber of Kerrisdale capital that has shorted the stock and is attempting to manipulate the market with misleading info. Who writes such a strong article and refuses to disclose who they are…..I’m waiting??

  7. Author is wrong in all accounts. See below. Like the airforce bought it would out seeing it in action. You anonymously posting false info is a disgrace…

    The service announced Monday that Edwards Air Force Base in California received an electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft from Joby Aviation, part of the company’s $131 million contract with the Air Force’s tech innovation arm, AFWERX.

    The aircraft holds one pilot and four passengers, can carry a payload of up to 1,000 pounds, and flies at speeds up to 200 miles per hour, said Greg Bowles, head of government affAirs

  8. I am currently a new investor in Horizon’s stock as they develop their cavorite x7. I figured that as a 35 million dollar market cap company, I was at much less risk of being in a bubble like investors in Joby and Ehang. That being said, I would love to get some expert opinions on their proposed aircraft, specifically their hybrid design and whether a 7 person hybrid aircraft with in wing fans is feasible at all, and if not how far away we might be from it being a real product.

  9. For another intriguing view on eVTOL, I’d suggest having a read of “The Emperor’s new clothes?” by RotorHub International editor, Gideon Ewers, in the Feb-March 2024 issue of that magazine. You can find a link to it via his LinkedIn profile.
    Something not mentioned here is where the pilots will come from. There is already a shortage across aviation, so how that challenge will be overcome will be interesting.

  10. Entire premise of this article in incorrect

    You wrote:
    “This is why there are no bomber drones or fighter drones”

    The Malloy Aeronautics TRV400 a sold and in-service product for the military has a range of +70km and a MAX payload of 180kg – these drones can also fly with torpedoes.

    Joby Aviations longest flights are visible on Adsbexchange for all to see.

  11. So in other words, if you want your drone to COME BACK, carrying 180kgs, the maximum range is a mere 6 miles. The length of 3 runways.

    That is not in any way comparable to an actual bomber.

  12. Nikolas K, If you would require an expert opinion, please email us – we have over 15 years experience in aircraft construction and would be interested in talking. Here is our address: labs[at]cyberbush.tech

  13. If we ignore the battery & safety show stoppers, and the people informing us about them, it all looks very promising.

  14. I have read a lit about eVTOL in China, and seen lots of YouTube videos. I have not seen them in person but apparently they are readily available for purchase today at less than half the price of a similar helicopter and are already in commercial use as air taxis either with or without an onboard pilot

  15. Yes the power to weight ratio is not good. This is why the first generations are just going to commute passengers around cities and their suburbs.
    Mass adoption will significantly lower the costs for both manufacturers and consumers.
    Think of how much money will be saved by not having to build and maintain roads in the future.
    In the future they will laugh at how we used to travel on land.

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