#20 What are eVTOLs?, and our city skies’ near future

Flying Cars, eVTOLs and the future of urban air mobility.


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In this issue of The Makers we’re talking about flying cars. Or, rather, really big drones. Or, “Ee-Vee-Tols”. 


In just 3-5 years from now, you’ll start to see something new and curious zipping across the sky over a city near you. So what is this thing that’s going to shape the future of our urban skies?

Today, we’re talking about eVTOLs which are, well, essentially really big drones. The kind that can carry goods, medical supplies and people.

And the story of eVTOLs is a neat story about how technologies, trends and ideas are combining to produce something new. And quickly.

What be they?

VTOL stands for ‘Vertical Take-off and Landing’.

In other words, a vehicle that gets airborne by going straight up, rather than needing some kind of runway. A helicopter is a classic example of a VTOL. As is my personal favourite: “Thrust-Vectoring fixed-wing aircraft” 

The ‘e’ stands for ‘electric’, or hybrid-electric. 

Some other important terminology you’ll likely encounter include: “personal air vehicles” or PAVs, and the more general catch-all term “urban air mobility” or UAM. And, the places that these vertical take off and land vehicles need to take off from and land? They’re called “Vertiports”.

So, what are eVTOLs for?

eVTOLs, and urban air mobility vehicles in general, are aimed at moving goods and people between points in a city and between cities. (It’s worth noting that intra-city eVTOL travel is the area of focus and expected growth.)

To begin with, they will piloted, with scope for being self-flying in the future.

eVTOLs aim to offer commuters a choice on certain routes, so, think trips to and from the airport. They could also play a role in delivering an organ donation to a waiting recipient, or getting paramedics to the scene of a medical emergency.

But beyond realising the longstanding dream of flying cars, what’s the problem that eVTOLs are trying to solve?

eVTOLs aim to offer a solution to the problem of the time soaking, air polluting congestion in our major cities. 

Take New York, the most congested city in the US. According to research by Inrix, New Yorkers lost almost two hours every single week in 2021 stuck in traffic. 

But spare a thought for Londoners. The average London driver will waste over 4 hours a week caught in traffic gridlock. The top four most congested cities on the planet are London, Paris, Brussels and Moscow (note there is a complete absence of East Asian and African cities from their analysis).

eVTOLS aim to offer a way out of this.

So, who will use eVTOLs?

If we’re talking about providing an airport shuttle service, the users will likely be businesses that are willing to pay a premium for the time saved or private individuals looking to enjoy the prestige and convenience of flying.

Hospitals and emergency services could also use them.

So, why are eVTOLs suddenly on our radar?

Factor 1: technology.

Three key technological advancements have converged to bring us to where we are: 

First, engines. Drone development has driven the improvement of electromagnetic motors that are now light, near-silent and capable of heavy lifting.

Second, computers. Developments in sensors, big data and AI mean we have the data and computing power to control the multiple engines that eVTOLs typically have (this is known as “distributed electric propulsion”) and this has paved the way for what the industry calls “fly-by-wire”. In other words, the computer is The Navigator.

And third, batteries. Demand for electric cars and solar energy has brought about better storage solutions. Lithium-ion batteries can go for long enough overcome “range anxiety” or the fear of running out of juice mid-flight, and can now generate power enough to lift a vehicle along with its pilot and four passengers.

And all this development is starting to attract attention and, importantly: money.

Factor 2: investment

Investors in low-carbon transit are looking beyond the saturated electric car market for new opportunities, and where else should they look, if not up? According to Bloomberg, investment in aerospace technology startups really took off in 2020 and shows little sign of losing altitude in 2022. 

Factor 3: the questions eVTOLs pose (for us and regulators)

A third factor for why eVTOLs, and urban air mobility more generally, are starting to break into the public consciousness is the important questions they pose for all of us.

Allowing novel flying machines in the skies over our cities requires us to think carefully about what should be the rules and safeguards governing their use? How can we make sure urban air vehicles are safe and secure? 

eVTOLs are another step in the journey of segmentation, where greater choice is available for different stages of your trips. 

But rather than segmentation, will eVTOLs simply create further transport segregation, allowing those who can afford it to jump the queues of congestion? 

Are they just a distraction from investing more in existing public transport systems? And instead of alleviating congestion, will eVTOLs simply displace demand from elsewhere end up creating new additional induced demand?

These are important public conversations for us all to participate in.

Regulators and cities believe this future will be with us in 3-5 years and some cities see this change as inevitable and so they’re preparing now. 

You can watch the video explainer here.

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Until next time…

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