The number of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft concepts is estimated at about 600 designs, from silly to serious, by nearly 350 companies worldwide, according to the Vertical Flight Society (VFS), a global non-profit organization working to advance vertical flight. WOW! But, some of those enterprises do have a prototype aircraft; others have nothing more than a design concept.
There are three races going on that are intertwined. For one the tech race, secondly the race for media exposure, and thirdly the race for finding deep pockets. All contestants will feed media and social media with claims, that they have the ultimate solution to make people, all over, happier than they were never before with this revolution in air transportation. Production in the hundreds is forecasted. But do the start-ups actually have the production capabilities?
Much of the eVTOL news is driven by fundraising and finding new partnerships. Apparently, the money is flowing and collaboration deals are being signed at an extraordinary pace. It is becoming a multibillion-dollar investment market segment. Savvy investors are considering adding eVTOL stocks to their portfolios to capitalize on the development of a greener and more sustainable future in aviation.
However, that number of eVTOL developers will shrink dramatically. Fairly rapid to 10 to 15, and ultimately to only 5 or 6 major players. In this industrial jungle segment, innovations and disruptions are sometimes sudden and almost common. But consolidation will take effect. Consolidation is a predictable and conventional evolution across all industries. It is almost inevitable and makes sense in certain aspects. Ultimately, it should come down to market driven dynamics, however these market dynamics may be swapped for control dynamics and in essence it is a strategy for power and control.
Major companies are not sitting still and have their own engineers working on related concepts and projects anyway. They will monitor what the start-ups are developing and just let them struggle with finding investment funding for their R&D budget. The first objective of large companies is to maximize shareholder value through profits. This always entails eliminating costs for duplication. That is what efficiency is about. However, they have the resources to acquire innovation. They will make their move when the time is right, and they know that the new developments of startup pioneers can be used for diversified market penetration or towards increasing market share. Does big fish eating the small ones ring a bell? Insiders call it exponential M&A (merger & acquisition).
Big OEMs will absorb small innovative companies to boost their own capabilities. The small startups may grow as far as middle size companies. But new entrants often cannot visibly see the problems that need to be solved. They may wrestle by sheer size already with complying with all requirements and the administrative workload. They may eventually realize that it is better to surrender to the large primes, which themselves are often typically a conglomerate of formerly independent companies. The industrial giants can afford to further develop, integrate in their own pallet of products for building a cutting edge, and then market it or they may squash it to prevent competition or conflict of interest.
Often smaller companies purposely work towards getting acquired by a larger company. They want to be acquired. A form of opportunism that can be part of their exit strategy from the start. They want to get just big enough or become just popular enough to get acquired. It would be a payday for them, and from thereon they can move on to a next disruption that is promising benefits, or continue to grow under the wings of the larger one.
What is addressed too little during this period of publicity hype, is the largely uncharted territory of operations. Who will enforce air traffic control and how? Where are the eVTOLS allowed to fly and at what altitude? Corridors like roads? Currently, things are presented in magnificent illustrations of flying taxis speeding at low altitude over buildings and properties. Yet, renderings are the creations of artists with their arty imagination. eVTOL’s are sometimes shown in swarms flying over a city especially during rush hours. Collisions may be possible. What if one of these hovering machines crashes in a city or urban area because of mechanical failure or human error? Are ground emergency services prepared? Is flying above streets safer? What falls from the sky is not comparable to the car accident damage in a street. Not to mention if it happens on top of a building.
Environmentalists who were excited about carbon-free emission may now start addressing social milieu concerns. Public acceptance may change. Mosquito spray doesn’t help to keep these annoying flying creatures away from flying over one’s property. What kind of “driver’s” license will air taxi handlers need? What are their training requirements? How about maintenance regulations for the flying equipment?
What about the democratisation of eVTOL? Who can afford the investment costs of purchasing the equipment. Taxis and limousines on four wheels are cheaper. Who will be able to afford the air fares? Will it become a toy for the well-to-do? Saving time is for those for whom saving time is money. It may expand the radius of life for some but at what cost? Not in dollars, but in disturbance or disruption to others in the community. Unless one has a sizeable property that allows having an own vertiport which may apply to some businesses. But parking an eVTOL next to one’s house in urban settings is out of the question. One still has to drive or be driven to a ‘vertiport near you’.
There is no doubt that advanced air mobility with eVTOL will happen. The next frontier in air transportation is pretty much guaranteed. But when? The certification for operation of the equipment is not the last hurdle to overcome. Many believe that 2025 will be THE date to look out for.
However, by that time appropriate regulations will also need to be established. That is not the work of aviation engineers but rather the activity of the regulating authorities and legal experts. If not done properly, there will be lots of opportunities for ambulance chasers who will welcome the opportunity to go to court with significant damage claims against owners, operators and manufacturers if anything unexpected happens. Being prepared for the unexpected is always a wise thing.
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