Shreyashi Sanyal CNBC
Electric air transport is set to take off with taxis, ambulances, cargo deliveries by end of this decade
February 25, 2024
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  • Among displays of defense jets, passenger airliners and high-tech aviation equipment at the Singapore Airshow were electric air transport vehicles — touted as the future of urban transportation.

    Electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles, or eVTOLs, which can land and take off vertically can be used as air taxis, for cargo delivery, medical and emergency response transportation and as private vehicles.

    CNBC spoke to three of the biggest names backing eVTOLs at the airshow — Hyundai Motor Group-owned Supernal, Boeing-backed Wisk and Embraer-owned Eve Air Mobility, which seek to commercialize their vehicles by the end of this decade.

    They highlighted air taxi services for short-distance travel over cities as one of the first potential uses of eVTOLs.

    “So it’s just going to be another way to travel instead of just going from the airport to downtown and you get stuck in your car for two hours … well, they’ll have an alternative that could be fully electrical,” Johann Bordais, chief executive officer of Eve Air Mobility, told CNBC.

    Eve is currently testing an air taxi prototype and aims to bring its concept to service by 2026.

    “We can use similar infrastructure that helicopter operators currently have,” Supernal’s chief executive officer Jaiwon Shin told CNBC, noting that while the operations may start in urban areas, they will gradually spread to routes serving satellite cities as well.

    “We are open to all possible use cases because there is no existing market out there,” Shin said.

    Supernal’s S-A2 eVTOL prototype, unveiled earlier this year, which is designed to carry four passengers and a pilot, aims to hit the market by 2028.

    Boeing-backed Wisk is currently working on its self-flying aircraft, with similar capabilities to that of Supernal.

    German eVTOL developer Lilium, backed by Tencent, announced at the Singapore Airshow that it has launched a customer service organization for eVTOL industry with offerings such as battery management, maintenance and flight support.

    U.S. test case, eyes on Asia

    Companies said they will seek regulatory as well as safety certifications in the U.S. to kickstart eVTOL operations in the country.

    Catherine MacGowan, vice president of APAC and air operations at Wisk said the company aims to enter the U.S. by the end of this decade, noting that Wisk was also in talks with authorities in Brisbane, Australia to establish a network to operate eVTOLs.

    “We’re looking to establish and advance the mobility network in Brisbane and the surrounding cities ahead of the Olympic Games. So that’s really exciting,” MacGowan said. Brisbane will host the 2032 Olympics.

    MacGowan said that Wisk has also partnered with Japan Airlines

     to develop operations in Japan as well other countries in Asia — a region that is being viewed by the industry as a high-potential market.

    Supernal says it’s tapping the Asia-Pacific market for advanced air mobility

    Supernal’s Shin said the company would also be looking at expanding into South Korea, with the backing of auto giant Hyundai Motor Group.

    South Korea’s biggest airline Korean Air had signed a deal with Supernal in October to build and develop infrastructure necessary for urban air commute and the commercialization of Supernal’s eVTOL vehicle in Korea.

    Shin noted that Incheon International Airport, South Korea’s main international airport, had also expressed interest in Supernal’s offerings.

    “The region sees many supportive regulators – in Japan, Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand,” said Alan Lim, a director at Alton Aviation Consultancy, while warning that Asia also has challenges including developing an ecosystem to support widespread eVTOL operations.

    Supernal’s Shin said he expects the eVTOL market will look more like the automotive industry and not like the “commercial aviation industry, where Boeing and Airbus pretty much dominate the global market.”

    Alton Aviation’s Lim noted that given the wide range of designs and use cases for eVTOLs, no single form factor can dominate the market, unlike the commercial aviation space.

    “As such, we agree that the industry will resemble more closely that of the automotive industry where there will be a number of large and small eVTOL manufacturers co-existing, some potentially finding niche areas and use cases for their vehicles.”