AutoFlight has appointed a new U.S.-based leadership team to oversee its plans to start deliveries of the four-seat Prosperity I eVTOL aircraft for commercial service in 2026. The Chinese company this week named Eviation Aircraft’s founder and former CEO, Omer Bar-Yohay, as its president. It also named Joby Aviation’s former head of business development, Chad Cashin, as its chief commercial officer.
At a new U.S. base at Napa County Airport in California, AutoFlight will expand the flight envelope for the current version of the Prosperity model as it works to freeze the design by the end of 2022. The company’s expanded U.S. subsidiary will now work alongside the design organization it established earlier this year in Augsburg, Germany, and its manufacturing hub near Shanghai.
Bar-Yohay is a friend of advanced air mobility investor Lukasz Gadowski, whose Team Global group led a $100 million funding round for AutoFlight in November 2021. The Germany-based technology entrepreneur has also invested in rival eVTOL developers Volocopter and Archer.
According to Bar-Yohay, AutoFlight’s decision to appoint U.S.-based leadership reflected a need to pursue FAA type certification to access a major market for eVTOL aircraft, and also a desire to have a more prominent center of corporate gravity outside China. “This company is a black swan that no one has paid attention to,” he told FutureFlight. “In the past, I was a big critic of eVTOLs, and I still am because it’s a big challenge and it won’t work if they are only green, quiet, and safe. They have to make economic sense and that means reduced production costs as well. The vehicles need to hit all those markers and not just be a new version of a helicopter.”
According to AutoFlight’s new leader, the company will be far more competitive on production costs than Western rivals and already has “hundreds” of employees in China focused on the manufacturing process. He argued that the Prosperity I will also cost much less to operate due to its “simplicity of design, avoiding complex electro-mechanical devices like tilting wings or rotors.”
Another competitive differentiator, Bar-Yohay claimed, is the degree of vertical integration at AutoFlight, which he said will own almost every part and system in the aircraft, with the exception of its avionics suite. “The more you own, the more you control your destiny on costs,” he said.
The company has previously indicated that the base price for the Prosperity I could be as low as $150,000, which is far lower than the price for most Western-made eVTOL designs. It claims that flights in the aircraft, with a range of 250 kilometers (155 miles), could cost no more than current ground-based taxi services.
The first Prosperity I test flights in the U.S. are expected to happen at the end of the first quarter of 2023, which is also when the company aims to submit its initial type certification application to EASA in Europe with a view to completing this process in 2025. AutoFlight intends to increase the production of prototypes to step up test and development work at all three of its locations, including in China's Jiangsu province where the first proof-of-concept aircraft started flying in October 2021.
In June, AutoFlight released a video showing a new design with what it says is an improved lift and cruise configuration, optimized lifting propellers, and enhanced hover and cruise performance. It is one of a handful of companies, also including Joby and EHang, to have achieved full transitions from vertical to horizontal flight with a full-scale eVTOL aircraft. The company says it has made over 100 such flights so far this year.
Meanwhile, there are signs that AutoFlight’s business model may be shifting to one that is more focused on engaging with existing commercial aircraft operators. In a February 2022 interview, founder and CEO Tian Yu told FutureFlight that mainstream general aviation operators are “too small” to achieve the scale he envisages and that major airlines will have only a peripheral interest in eVTOL aircraft, which he said will never have the range to fit into their networks.
“We will now be talking to operators with significant fleets, including Part 135 or charter operators,” said Bar-Yohay. While he now “buys into” the urban air mobility market (UAM) vision, he indicated that he does not expect the sector to scale up as early and as quickly as some eVTOL rivals have suggested it will in their aggressive pitches to investors to go public.
“The way UAM will unfold is incrementally around current helicopter services and hub-and-spoke operations [to and from airports and other locations], but then the question is who picks up the scale to a different level,” he commented. “Maybe it could be an Uber-like player, creating a bubble for high-volume operations. This could start with a few hundred aircraft in the early years, and the toolbox is certainly full of the tools needed to build the system.”
Chad Cashin, who is now leading AutoFlight’s commercial efforts, joined Joby almost three years ago when the company acquired Uber’s Elevate division. This division had been trying to establish a platform for on-demand eVTOL air taxi services.
Bar-Yohay co-founded Eviation Aircraft in 2015 with Aviv Tzidon and left the company in February 2022 after a disagreement with its main shareholder, Clermont Group. Last week, Eviation achieved a long-awaited first flight with its Alice electric fixed-wing aircraft, which is now expected to be ready to start regional airline operations in 2027. He said that he still expects Eviation to succeed and remains a shareholder in the company.
AutoFlight, which also has plans for a family of cargo drones, is close to completing another funding round, which Tian Yu has previously said would aim to raise another $200 million. Bar-Yohay indicated that further fundraising may well be required as the company approaches being ready to start serial production of the Prosperity I and, in his view, the source of this funding may well be driven by which markets prove most receptive to the aircraft and where it can find suitable partners.