Inside the high-stakes race to build world’s first flying taxi
‘This is the perfect means of transportation, something that can take off and land everywhere’
The Lilium prototype flying taxi in a hangar in Wessling, Germany. Photograph: Felix Schmitt/The New York Times
Inside an aircraft hangar about 30km (20 miles) from central Munich, Daniel Wiegand lifted the door of a prototype that he said would become one of the world’s first flying taxis. He’s coy about how much it cost to build – “several million,” he says, but promises that within five years a fleet of them could provide a 10-minute trip from Manhattan to Kennedy International Airport for $70 (€63).
A lot is riding on his aircraft. Wiegand (34) is the chief executive and a founder of Lilium, one of the most promising and secretive start-ups in the global race to build an all-electric aircraft that will – regulators and public opinion willing – move passengers above cities.
“This is the perfect means of transportation, something that can take off and land everywhere,” says Wiegand (pronounced VEE-gand). “It’s very fast, very efficient and low noise.”
Expectations that aerial taxis will be a reality in the coming years are quickly building. Companies like Lilium are testing their machines, laying the groundwork for wider production and starting discussions to gain support from government officials.
At least 20 companies are in the market, which Morgan Stanley estimates will top €770 billion by 2040. Larry Page, the billionaire co-founder of Google, is financially backing Kitty Hawk, a company run by the first engineers on Google’s autonomous car. Boeing and Airbus have projects under way. Carmakers including Daimler, Toyota and Porsche are investing in the sector. Uber is developing an air taxi service, with plans to open by 2023 in Los Angeles, Dallas and Melbourne, Australia.
Yet saying your aircraft could fly over Manhattan in five years doesn’t mean it will. Building durable jets at a reasonable cost still presents engineering and technical challenges. And a long process awaits with regulators, including the US Federal Aviation Administration, that will need to weigh safety concerns.
“The question is can we build a platform that is broadly accessible to everybody and is not just a rich person’s toy, and can we build it so quiet that people on the ground aren’t annoyed by it?” says Kitty Hawk chief executive Sebastian Thrun.
Lilium, which has raised more than €100 million from investors, illustrates the high-wire act of the companies trying to live up to the hype.
The black-and-white aircraft shown by Wiegand is less “Jetsons”-like flying car than a glider, with a carbon fibre body and 11m wingspan. Like several other flying taxis in development, it is battery powered, providing a range of 300km and a top speed of nearly 305km/h. Inside the oval cabin will eventually be plush seats and other comforts for four passengers and a pilot.
The engines are packed inside four wings with flaps that rotate so the aircraft can take off and land vertically like a helicopter. But it is quieter than a helicopter, so it could potentially land in some areas traditionally off limits to aircraft.
The costs of the jets may eventually fall to several hundred thousand dollars each, says Wiegand. And with lower maintenance costs because there are fewer mechanical components, rides should cost roughly the same as an Uber or a taxi ride. Insurance companies have told him that they will provide him with risk coverage.
If successful, he says, the jets will transform urban transportation, with customers using Lilium’s app to book a flight from a network of small airports that connect suburbs, college towns and other hubs to cities. Imagine, he says, jets connecting areas across California or southern Germany that don’t have high-speed train lines.
Eric Allison, the head of Uber’s flying taxi effort, says the technological hurdles were less complex than for autonomous vehicles; there is less traffic in the air and the first generations of the aircraft will have pilots.
Still, says Allison, no company has received government certification to fly commercially.
“That’s a tall order,” he says.
Then there are the many other obstacles to overcome. Battery technology limits how far the vehicles can fly. Building a prototype is different from starting mass production. And the price of the machines, and operating them, needs to be low enough to make rides affordable for customers.
Regulators could slow development by limiting the number of take-offs and landings on desirable routes. There are not enough air traffic controllers now to handle a big influx of flights across cities. One fatal accident and demand could dry up.
“This is going to be a test of staying power – an ability to lose money, an ability to ride out a failure,” says Adam Jonas, a lead author of the Morgan Stanley report on the industry. “Many will fail.”
Lilium is years away from making money and, with more than 300 employees and an expensive research and development budget, is burning through cash. Wiegand says it will have to raise more money.
“It’s not enough to just build a nice prototype and fly it around. What we really need to be successful is building a company that’s capable of designing, certifying, manufacturing and operating these aircraft in very large scale.”
Lilium has said little publicly beyond releasing a few engineering specifications and declaring that it will be carrying customers by 2025. It is seeking certification for its jet from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and plans to do the same with the Federal Aviation Administration. The hypothetical New York route is more of a long-term goal.
After accepting an invitation to be the first journalists to see its jet, reporters arrived at Lilium’s headquarters last month only to face restrictions on what they could photograph or see. Executives say the company has completed hundreds of test flights and simulations, but none were held during the visit because of rain and wind. (Last month, Lilium released a slickly produced video showing its jet completing a test flight.)
American rivals say they know little about Lilium beyond its hiring of experienced aviation executives from Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Raytheon to oversee areas such as manufacturing, quality control and procurement. Even German chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained physicist, is intrigued. At an aviation conference last year, she stopped by Lilium’s booth and peppered Wiegand with questions about the battery, flight range and engines.
Wiegand says secrecy is necessary to keep rivals from learning too much. Unlike other jets that look similar to the small commercial drones that can be bought in a store, Lilium’s plane has packed 36 smaller engines in its rotating wings that act as thrusters for take-offs, landings, and subtle movements forward and back. Encasing the engines in the wings reduces friction and noise.
“Nobody has one with the performance we have,” says Wiegand.
He came up with the idea for Lilium during college, working out the engineering specifications while many of his friends were out drinking. He founded the company with three others in 2015, borrowing money and persuading suppliers to provide some free parts to begin building a small prototype.
After proving it worked, they raised money from investors including Niklas Zennström, a co-founder of Skype who now runs Atomico, a venture capital firm in London. In 2017, the Chinese internet giant Tencent led an investment of $90 million.
Nobody has flown inside Lilium’s jet. Test flights are done remotely from the ground. But Wiegand, who was flying gliders at age 14, promises to be one of the first.
“I was flying long before I was allowed to drive a car,” he says. – New York Times