Joby Aviation detailed this week how it is seeking approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for its new mass-market air taxis as traditional airplanes, rather than as multirotors. This will enable Joby to speed the pace of certification and enter the market in 2024.
Joby’s air taxis are projected to cost approximately $3 per mile by 2026, comparable to Uber X. That means that in three years travelers would be able to take a $70 air taxi from downtown DC to Dulles airport, rather than a $75 cab—in a fraction of the time. Across the country, $70 could also get travelers from San Francisco’s East Bay to San Francisco International Airport.
Paul Sciarra, Joby’s executive chairman, told me in a conversation last month that Joby is taking a practical approach to certification, and avoiding innovation where it is not required. It’s easier to get approval with a trained pilot using existing flight rules, rather than with an autonomous drone.
The $3 per mile charge starts with having the right specification and a shorter range, Mr. Sciarra told me. That way the asset can be used a lot more and kept moving, amortizing costs and delivering profits.
Joby is one of a new class of companies pioneering Urban Air Mobility with electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicles. Other companies include Archer, Germany’s Lilium and Volocopter, and China’s Ehang.
Joby’s air taxis will operate with pilots, so they can be certified within the existing FAA regulatory system for passenger planes. Joby has been engaging with the FAA for seven years, and this regulatory approval path is easier than driverless vehicles or drones.
I test-flew the Joby simulator this fall from downtown Washington to the Pentagon. Then I simulated a flight to suburban Maryland. The aircraft is roomy with a terrific view.
Uber is investing in Joby, and partnering in getting customers from their homes to takeoff and landing pads, called vertiports, and from the vertiports to final destinations. The model can be viewed as a higher-priced version of Uber pool, with air taxis an elevated version of ridesharing.
Riders would book the air taxi in advance at the closest vertiport. An Uber would pick them up and take them to the air taxi. The air taxi would take them to the closest vertiport, and they would take an Uber to their final destination.
The air taxi is designed for journeys up to 150 miles and Joby recently demonstrated it can go more than 154 miles of range on a single charge. It would get recharged every time it landed and picked up more passengers with charging stations at the landing pads. The energy used for a 25-mile trip could be recharged in 5 to 10 minutes.
One advantage of the Joby air taxi is that it is quiet—less than 60 decibels at takeoff, about the sound of a passenger car. It’s less than 40 decibels when it is flying through the air, about the sound of bird calls. In comparison, a helicopter is about 100 decibels. This low volume is made possible by the aircraft’s all-electric motors, which have the additional advantage of low emissions, as well as by a series of design decisions such as the shape and angles of the rotor blades.
Of course, the major concern is safety. People are not going to ride in an aircraft that they believe has a chance of crashing.
The six propellers each have two motors, and are capable of flying with one motor. If one motor goes, then the other motor will continue to operate that propeller. If another motor goes, the air taxi can still fly safely, but the pilot would land it as a precautionary measure and another air taxi would come to pick up the passengers. This is far safer (and quieter) than the modern helicopter.
Joby is designed to serve a mass market, the same demographics that taxis used to serve in the mid-20th century. In those days, taxis served business users, with lower-income individuals splurging on taxis when they had an urgent need, such as to get a woman in labor to the hospital.
Joby was designed before the pandemic, but the pandemic has increased the need for air taxis. People moved out of dense cities and started working at home. Now that the pandemic is over, some prefer to stay in suburban and rural areas. Some employers are moving to a hybrid workplace, and others are accepting applications for remote work.
With the shortage of workers, and over 10 million unfilled openings, many of those who want to work remotely can do so. When they have to come into their workplace, an air taxi can speed up the process.
The implication for time savings and land use is substantial. People could spend less on housing by living further out, in larger homes, and take air taxis into the city on the days that they work. The savings on housing could pay for the cost of the air taxi.
Federal regulations are just one hurdle. Municipalities also have to give permission for landings and takeoffs, and Joby has to negotiate space for future vertiports. Although air taxis are relatively quiet, some people might not want them landing and taking off next door. However, with cities struggling with transportation, and concerned about congestion and emissions, they should be enthusiastic about providing their residents with more options.
Aerospace is an enduring American innovation. As we think about the future, America is maintaining that leadership position with air taxis. Let’s hope that the FAA proceeds expeditiously with certification.