Orange County Business Journal
Busy Skies for OC’s Flying Taxi Industry
December 13, 2021
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  • Orange County’s nascent flying taxi industry is taking off, literally.

    Hyundai Motor Group has picked Irvine for the engineering headquarters for a newly formed division, called Supernal, which aims to get flying taxis into service in 2028.

    It recently leased over 100,000 square feet of high-end office space in the Irvine Spectrum to hold that division, and is in the early stages of a big hiring push for the expected 300-person group.

    Supernal is working to build an electric-powered vertical takeoff-and-landing vehicle—known in the industry as an eVTOL—that will carry four to five passengers in urban areas and nearby locations to start.

    “We’re working on technology at Supernal to power an entirely new dimension of mobility,” Ben Diachun, the company’s chief technology officer, told the Business Journal on Dec. 3.

    Regulatory certification for the vehicles is expected in 2024, according to the company.

    Local Hub

    The Hyundai deal is the latest in a series of moves from eVTOL-related development firms that are helping to make Orange County a key hub for the emerging industry aimed at revolutionizing airborne mobility.

    A competing company, Overair in Santa Ana, is also working on its own air taxi plans and this year more than doubled its local base of operations to 203,000 square feet.

    Meanwhile the Aria Group near John Wayne airport has formed a collective, dubbed Co-Lektiv, “to steer the evolution of advanced air mobility.” That Irvine firm has worked with Hyundai and Uber on flying taxi conceptual plans in the past.

    Discovery Park Tenant

    Supernal about a month ago struck a roughly 105,600-square-foot lease to occupy the entirety of one of the newer mid-rise buildings at Irvine Co.’s Discovery Park complex near Sand Canyon Road and the Santa Ana (5) Freeway.

    The full-building deal’s among the larger office leases in Orange County this year.

    The company plans to build out the space to house its engineering headquarters, with room for about 300 workers. 

    The company will move into the building in a year or so, and will be working out of temporary space in the area until then. Supernal’s teams are still remote at this time.

    “We are thrilled that Supernal chose Irvine Spectrum as the location to establish its engineering headquarters,” said Jonathan Brinsden, President of Irvine Co.’s office division, in a statement provided to the Business Journal.

    “Irvine Company’s portfolio provided Supernal with a unique location combining Class A office, a host of highly desirable workplace amenities, and proximity to a robust and experienced talent pool for establishing this innovative mobility service provider.”

    Vegas Launch

    Supernal was launched as the Urban Air Mobility Division of Hyundai Motor Group at the giant CES 2020 tech show in Las Vegas. Its headquarters are in Washington, D.C., but the tech brains behind its aircraft will be in OC.

    “Tech talent is critical to making advanced air mobility a reality—and that makes Irvine a great place for our engineering headquarters,” said Diachun, who was named to the CTO spot in February. He previously served as CEO and president at Opener, an aerospace startup in Palo Alto.

    Diachun noted that Southern California is home to some of the top schools, suppliers and professionals in the world.

    “It draws people and offers an incredible talent pool to expand our rapidly growing team of aerospace, automotive, and deep-tech industry experts,” he said.

    Supernal was advertising for 31 open positions in Irvine as of Dec. 7, with the jobs including airframe designer and lead flight control systems engineer. 

    “We’re developing a commercially viable Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) product from the start, designing and manufacturing our vehicle to the highest safety, noise, efficiency, and affordability standards,” Diachun said.

    Supernal’s first air vehicle will be electric-powered and autonomous-capable and is planned to accommodate four to five passengers on initial urban and urban-adjacent routes, flying from a “vertiport.”

    Electric-powered flying taxis are expected to be significantly quieter than today’s helicopters.      

    Busy Skies

    South Korea-based Hyundai predicted last month that public acceptance of air taxis will begin to grow in the 2030s.

    The Supernal website forecasts a 24-minute trip from Anaheim to Downtown Los Angeles and 14 minutes from Heathrow Airport to London as two examples. 

    It’s one of several other flying taxi services with ambitious plans for passenger service in the not-too-distant future.

    Other notable players in the rapidly expanding industry include Santa Cruz-based Joby Aviation Inc. (NYSE: JOBY), which is valued around $4 billion, and Germany’s Volocopter; each are promising to have aircraft in service by 2024.

    “There’s a group of companies that are all in a competition with each other of sorts, although I will say at least in the short term it’s far more collaborative than competitive,” Overair Chief Executive Ben Tigner told the Business Journal at his company’s headquarters on Nov. 4.

    Tigner adds: “The potential market is much, much larger than any one company can fill.”

    For more on Overair and its growth plans, see the Dec. 20 print edition of the Business Journal.

    Heavenly Ambitions

    Supernal is not scared off by the competition.

    “We have bold ambitions at Supernal but being first to market is not one of them,” said Jaiwon Shin, chief executive of Supernal and president of Hyundai Motor Group, said last month.

    A Wall Street Journal story from last month cited an expectation that pricing for a trip on the copter could run about the same as a ride in luxury car service Uber Black. 

    “We are working to build the right product and the right integrated market, and we will leverage Hyundai Motor Group’s scaled manufacturing expertise to ensure AAM reaches the right price point and is accessible to the masses,” Shin said.

    The word Supernal means heavenly or coming from above.