The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Marry Tesla to Uber and You Get eVTOL Transportation as a Service, Say UAM Pioneers

Senior executives from eVTOL aircraft developers Joby and Archer, as well as prospective operator United Airlines, presented their vision for urban air mobility (UAM) at a seminar sponsored by Northwestern University’s Transportation Center on November 17.  That vision increasingly casts eVTOLs as a service—much like the concept of software as a service—inside a larger urban air mobility ecosystem.

“Think Tesla meets Uber in the sky,” said Eric Allison, Joby Aviation’s head of product. In his view, for eVTOLs to succeed they must be supported by an integrated urban air mobility (UAM) infrastructure, in terms of both physical facilities such as vertiports and booking technology that makes travel accessible and affordable. 

“We're not just building a plane, we're really building a service,” he said. “We don't believe in a Jetsons future, where everyone has one of these parked in the driveway or perched on their roof. We don't expect you'll train people to be a pilot with us. We want to make flying with us as simple as booking the car [service].”

Allison predicted that what Joby is promising will look a lot like the shared car ride service Uber, with riders booking flights on an app either from Joby or one of its partners with seamless ground and air last-mile transportation. Back in December 2020, Joby acquired Uber’s in-development Elevate on-demand flight booking platform but did not elaborate on what it intended to do with the technology and business model, which at one time seemed to be the dominant force in the emerging UAM market.

“You confirm the trip and the technology in the background will just take care of the rest,” Allison told the webinar. “Our network will synthesize a full multimodal itinerary and dispatch a rideshare car to pick you up for the first leg of your trip and take you to the optimal skyport. There, you will be directed to the Joby aircraft with up to three other riders matched into the same flight, just in time, by our network.”

Merging data and partnerships is the key to creating a UAM ecosystem that is affordable, noted Andrew Cummins, Archer’s director of business development. “The aircraft is the crown jewel of our product portfolio, but what we're doing is building something that's greater than just the aircraft,” he said. “It's truly an entire ecosystem comprised of a forward-facing application where you would go and book your flight and also create the entire origin-to-destination travel that you're looking to accomplish.”  

“Data partnerships and digital orchestration” are the keys to providing a seamless travel experience, he added, noting that Archer has built a proprietary data service platform it calls “Prime Radiant” to advance this goal. “We're using data to help model the [aircraft] configuration and design. We're using demand data that helps design optimal vertiport networks. And we're also using data to help determine pricing and optimization of the operations of our UAM service. We want to leverage the power of technology to transform the customer experience.”

Edward Espiritu, United Airlines' venture and corporate development senior manager, sees UAM as a way to differentiate his company’s mainline airline brand from its competitors, provide value to its customers, and strengthen ties with its travel partners such as major hotel chains. In February, United and its regional partner Mesa Airlines committed to buying between 200 and 300 of Archer’s four-passenger eVTOL, which is due to enter service in 2024.

“We're excited about the potential value proposition we can offer to our own customers,” said Espiritu. “Being able to offer customers the opportunity to avoid the stress of a time-consuming, heavily congested commute to the airport, and then potentially bringing them to the secure side of that airport, can really be a high-value, differentiated experience for our customers in the cities our [airport] hubs are located in. These are some of the most heavily congested cities in the country, where trips to the airport can take an hour or longer, even though the distance from the city center to the airport is less than 20 to 30 miles. This is the perfect mission profile for us.”

The United Airlines executive stressed the advantages of making customer travel seamless for both the ground and air components of a trip. “There are many ways we could integrate an Archer ride into the United customer experience,” he explained. “Instead of the originating airport as a starting point on your itinerary, it would be the vertiport in your neighborhood.  For example, if you have a business meeting and have to fly from Chicago to New York, you [would book] your ticket from the [Chicago downtown] Loop to Wall Street. Or if you book a room with our hotel partner Marriott, you can take an Archer vehicle as your shuttle back and forth from the hotel stop. So as urban air mobility becomes more and more part of our lives, so too will we find more and more use cases that we can offer to our customers.”  

According to Espiritu, there are other advantages to eVTOL/UAM companies partnering with major airlines, including vehicle development using the airlines’ in-house flight test and engineering teams, aircraft maintenance, and pilot training. United is also investing in Archer, which in September completed a merger with special purpose acquisition company Atlas Crest and a New York Stock Exchange listing.

“[We're] using the vast scale of United’s operations to provide resources to Archer as it works to operationalize and commercialize their aircraft,” Espiritu told the webinar. “United has a core focus on sustainability and supporting technology that leads to greener forms of travel. We view our investment in Archer as a way to be on the ground floor of emerging and enabling green technologies.”  

To that end, Joby’s Allison stressed that eVTOL aircraft hold the promise of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and urban aircraft noise. The latter provokes most citizen helicopter complaints in major urban centers such as New York and Los Angeles.

“It's not only about reducing the engine noise but addressing the propeller noise, too,” he counseled, noting that Joby’s aircraft has an overflight noise profile of just 40 dB or “about what you would find in a library.”