(CNN) – The van rumbled in the desert of central California. The incinerated earth from controlled burning was visible to one side of the unpaved road we were traveling on. Surely this van needed new shock absorbers.
The 40-degree heat cornered us as we circled some bushes and ran into an airstrip. A hangar with a bunch of adjacent trailers lined up on one side of the runway. And there it was: an airplane that looked like something out of a science fiction comic. With its six propellers, it wasn’t your typical helicopter, but it wasn’t an airplane either.
What we were looking at was Joby Aviation’s electric solution for air travel – they know it as an eVTOL aircraft, which stands for electric vertical take-off and landing. As the name suggests, the aircraft can take off and land like a helicopter but fly like an airplane.
“It is significantly safer, significantly faster and significantly quieter than the helicopters out there today,” Paul Sciarra, CEO of Joby Aviation and co-founder of Pinterest, told CNN Business, although those claims could not be immediately verified.
Electric trains have been transporting passengers from one place to another for more than a century. Electric cars have been around for almost as long, although they got a big boost in the last decade. But although the era of aviation began in the early 1900s, since then it has relied almost entirely on the internal combustion of petroleum products.
For decades, commercial air travel also looked much the same. Despite advances in aerodynamics and fuel consumption, the two main problems – noise and air pollution – have not yet been overcome. In fact, in 2019, air travel accounted for about 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, the highest figure since the 2008 pre-recession all-time high, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Still, passenger cars still make up the largest share of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, at nearly 12%.
Joby claims that its eVTOL aircraft could be the solution for a cheaper, quieter and more environmentally friendly means of commercial flight.
“I think this service allows us to rethink the way we have thought about transportation, generally in two dimensions, and really take it to three dimensions,” said Sciarra.
What can passengers expect from the eVTOL?
Joby’s business operations, which it hopes to launch in 2024, will allow customers to reserve a seat on one of its planes as they would in a ride-sharing app. With a distance of up to 240 kilometers on a single charge and capacity for four passengers, Joby hopes his plane can help alleviate urban congestion.
On the company’s websiteFor example, the possibility of going from Los Angeles airport to Newport Beach (a distance of approximately 35 miles as the eVTOL aircraft flies) is promoted in just 15 minutes, compared to an hour longer when driving. That could be very attractive to Los Angeles drivers, who spent an average of 119 hours in traffic in 2017, according to a Texas A&M Transportation Institute report.
“We don’t have the congestion problems in the sky because we have another axis to work with,” Sciarra said.
Of course, a similar trip could be done with a helicopter, but companies like Joby predict that eVTOLs could make those trips cheaper and therefore more accessible.
Electric vehicles typically have fewer moving parts than a combustion engine, which means less maintenance, according to the US Department of Energy. And electric batteries not only lower carbon emissions, they can lower energy costs compared to traditional jet fuel.
At launch, passengers could expect the cost of flying in one of the company’s eVTOLs to be “something like $ 6.4 per passenger-kilometer,” Sciarra said, adding that he expects that cost per kilometer. drop to $ 4.8 in two years. If this is true and eVTOL aircraft can cost about the same as ground transportation, there is reason to believe that they could reduce the number of vehicles stopped in traffic.
Silence in the desert
Skipping traffic and opting to fly is not a new concept. Since the 1950s, many companies have offered short and medium-range scheduled and on-demand flights.
“In many cities there are already heliports that are there. But, unfortunately, they are not used very often, and that is largely due to the noise of the helicopters,” says Sciarra, which is supported by NASA research.
Joby has spent almost a decade tweaking the design so that the aircraft “could blend in with the background noise of whatever city was operating and take advantage of this infrastructure that is there, like under our noses.”
As I watched the liftoff and the drone of the figure-eight aircraft, the sound was remarkably quiet. According to Sciarra, at its highest point, the plane emits 65 decibels, which is roughly equivalent to the sound of an air conditioner. About 50 meters away, the six propellers of the aircraft taking off reminded me of the rapid hum of my little recreational drone, and when it was 400 meters away, it was already silent. During the flyby, aircraft noise was perceptible, but not distracting compared to traditional aircraft.
Joby’s search for a quieter and greener aircraft has also caught the attention of NASA, which had a team in place during my visit to monitor aircraft noise.
“Normally you have to remind people that NASA’s first ‘A’ is aeronautics,” Starr Ginn, head of NASA’s national campaign, told CNN Business. “It is important to understand what the noise signatures of these aircraft are like because we want to understand how we are going to integrate operations in the community.”
A crowded industry
In 2020, Joby received the first airworthiness certification for an eVTOL aircraft by the US Air Force. Its goal is to gain full FAA approval in 2023, according to the company.
To achieve this, Joby established a strategic partnership with Toyota, which invested US $ 394 million in the company and contributed its manufacturing expertise. In addition, Uber invested $ 75 million after Joby acquired its Elevate equipment, the former eVTOL initiative of the ridesharing company.
Joby’s partnership with Uber will allow the company to offer its eVTOL service directly in the Uber app. But Joby also plans to have its own direct-to-consumer app, according to Sciarra.
This year, Joby became one of the first publicly traded eVTOL companies. At press time, it is valued at more than $ 5.5 billion. However, before reaching a commercial launch, the company will have to face an increasingly saturated market of other eVTOL companies.
Astro Aerospace, Volocopter and Vertical Aerospace, among others, work on their own electric fleets to make taxis. They also have numerous reputable investors. Vertical Aerospace, which is headquartered in the UK and also scheduled to go public this year, already has pre-orders for its eVTOL jets from American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic, as already reported CNN Business.
At the moment, no company has received approval to fly with commercial passengers.
By the time I came out of the desert and my wheels rolled on the scorching tarmac, the loud hum of highway traffic was already within earshot.