Despite the technical and operational feasibility of e-air taxis today, mass adoption is unlikely in the next 10-15 years due to infrastructure challenges and delay in delivering a fully autonomous service, according to a new report.

A new study by LEK Consulting analysing whether commercial timelines for developing e-air taxi services at scale are feasible pours cold water on the idea of rapid adoption. The past few years have seen the likes of Uber, Airbus and Lilium making commercial launch expectations within the next five years — with Uber announcing that its third launch city will be Melbourne in 2023.

The report identifies seven key barriers to mass adoption, and finds that the delay to autonomy and the lack of infrastructure needed to make e-air taxis work at scale will make mass adoption difficult in the medium term.

The researchers say current infrastructure is unlikely to be able to accommodate urban air mobility at scale. Achieving the 4,000-passengers-per-hour throughput required will need custom-built, large-scale infrastructure. While technically feasible, these structures would require prime real estate in densely populated urban environments, they note.

On the cost front the study reveals that with scale manufacturing techniques, autonomy and pool usage, Uber says aerial taxis could be cheaper than car ownership today, at $0.44 per passenger mile. L.E.K.’s analysis broadly aligns with these cost estimates. However, to meet these projections, it is necessary to assume a heavily utilised model at scale, with minimal infrastructure investment.

There is also some way to go on public acceptance of such services. Trust in any technology is critical to scalability, the authors write. “We expect early adopters being willing to try electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft while early flights are piloted. However, with scale, a fully autonomous solution will be needed — and when autonomous aircraft are introduced, considerable work will be needed to drive customer acceptance.”

The report also identifies four key aspects to ensuring mass-market pricing, including:

  • Maximising utilisation by minimising turnaround times (i.e., maximum turnaround time at c.8-10 minutes).
  • Ensuring high load factors through ridesharing and retaining an average passenger capacity per trip of at least c.2-2.5 passengers.
  • Minimising fixed network costs by using existing infrastructure and attractive other investors to keep initial capital costs below c.$5 million-$10 million per skyport (i.e., takeoff and landing zone).
  • Ensuring efficient vehicle manufacture by keeping vehicle costs within the range of $1 million-$2.5 million.

“In the 2020s, we are likely to continue to see rollouts in new cities, regulatory change and further technological improvements,” said George Woods, partner at L.E.K. and report author.

“Whilst Uber’s piloted commercial launch plans may seem aggressive at first glance, they are operationally and technically feasible, and are very much in line with the likes of other industry participants Lilium and Airbus. Delivering a fully autonomous solution, however, will take several years and will be contingent on millions of incident-free flying kilometres to match the safety standards of other passenger aircraft,” said Natasha Santha, principal at L.E.K. and report author.

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