24th June 2024

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Business Industry and Financial

Joby Aviation and the Future of Travel

settle into
the seat, check my controls, and lift off.

The aircraft lifts off, not takes off. It’s like a helicopter at first, as the propellers start to spin. But unlike a chopper’s long floppy blades, these props look like an airplane’s but point straight up. Out of the windows, monitors show the Marina, California, airfield and the straw meadows and green hills beyond. It’s early September, and I’m among the first journalists to “pilot” a simulated version of Joby Aviation’s eVTOL, pronounced “ee-vee-toll” — that’s aviation geekspeak for electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft — an air taxi that runs on batteries, sometimes labeled a flying car, and a completely new type of civilian aircraft that may soon become a way we get around. The simulator is inside a giant white hangar at Joby’s aircraft-assembly and testing facility on a decommissioned Army airbase in Marina. 

Outside, Joby’s real electric aircraft waits on the tarmac. It’s one of the new air taxis and flying cars that intend to make terrestrial traffic obsolete over the next 20 years. If all goes according to plan, one of them will glide passengers over Paris this summer. And sometime next year, the first electric-air-taxi services will begin to ramp up in the United States. 

Air taxis, industry leaders claim, will take riders for quick trips through the sky — as short as 10 minutes or less and as far as 100 miles or more — leaving traffic below and getting people around more safely than by car at the speed of a small airplane, yet quietly enough to talk with fellow passengers while flying. Air-taxi flights, they insist, will eventually cost no more than an Uber ride. Joby’s founder, JoeBen Bevirt, believes we’re verging on a new era where we’ll begin to park our cars and fly. 

“The first step is the air-taxi service,” Bevirt tells me over lunch earlier that day. “But my dream is getting to the time when moving around in the air becomes as commonplace as moving around in automobiles, [and] flight will become part of everyday life.” 

If Bevirt’s dream becomes real, the world will change in countless ways. First, think skyways instead of highways. Then there’s the hopscotching people will do about town, rooftop to rooftop, and to places well outside of cities. That means more time for work and play and less time spent getting there. And electric air taxis offer the possibility for people to live where they want, not where their jobs dictate — even if those jobs require coming into the office. Short-distance flying could put outlying areas — Madison to Chicago, Cape Cod to Boston, and where I am on the Monterey Bay to San Francisco — within reach in less time than it takes to drive across most cities today. Live, work, play wherever an electric air taxi flies. 

With a potential bonanza in short-distance flight in the offing, an air race is on. More than 200 companies are engineering air taxis and flying cars, though just a handful have flown to date. Joby competitor Archer Aviation has already announced its goal to start air-taxi service with its partner United Airlines from Manhattan to New Jersey’s Newark airport and from downtown Chicago to O’Hare next year. And urban planners are envisioning a possible aerial future, probably 20 or more years off, when air taxis will fly around metropolitan regions by the thousands per hour, carrying millions of people through the week. 

But before all of that, important questions await answers. Small planes and helicopters crash all too frequently. Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter avoiding L.A. traffic. Batteries sometimes overheat and can explode. Fire in the sky? Will we trust that electric air taxis are safe? And even with all of the savings that come with battery-powered flight, getting around by air seems inherently more expensive than by car. 

Will this innovation become more than just another way for the rich to distance themselves from the rest of us? Even industry leaders admit: Not at first. Maybe it’s never. They may prove too expensive, too dangerous, too high in the air. Aviation history is filled with jaw-dropping machines like the Concorde, the supersonic airliner that promised to shrink the globe, but wound up as a museum piece after around a quarter-century. Could electric air taxis and flying cars become another spectacular, multibillion-dollar aviation-industry flameout? 

Soon, we may just have an answer.

THE PROPS LIFT my simulated eVTOL until it hovers off the ground. With a push on the left power handle, the six articulating propellers tilt forward around the cabin, sending the aircraft forward and up, faster and faster. After a spin over the neighboring hills and dunes along Monterey Bay, I turn back and land. The real Joby eVTOL can fly for about 150 miles at speeds of 200 miles per hour on a single battery charge. 

I can imagine life with Carmel, Santa Cruz, and Silicon Valley within easy reach from where I am — no more need to snake along coastal Highway 1 or white-knuckle it in the 101’s traffic crawl. But the flying-car future has been touted and hyped like a meme stock for more than a decade while billions of dollars have poured into the industry — more than $15 billion in 2022 alone, according to consulting firm McKinsey. 

Year after year, companies have announced that they’re just another year or two away from starting their air-taxi services — with nothing much beyond concepts and brief experimental flights to show for all of that hoopla and cash. And like a meme stock, all of the flying-car hype has led to nasty crashes, some of them real, perhaps most likely contributing to the 2022 closing of Google co-founder Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk, one of the earliest companies in the field — its personal flyer kept catching on fire, and it also tended to break down more than it flew, according to press reports. Several other companies have bowed out, too. 

That doesn’t surprise automotive- and aviation-industry consultant Christopher Hart, who investigated aircraft and other transportation accidents as chair of the National Transportation Safety Board under President Barack Obama. He tells me that there is still “unrealistic optimism about the timing” for the arrival of electric air taxis. He compares the future of eVTOL commercial flight to the for-sure notion that we’d all be hailing driverless taxis by now. “Both concepts are transformative,” he says, “but both are far more complex and difficult to implement than is widely known.”

The issue is the eVTOL is both helicopter and airplane. Their multiple batteries power motors turning propellers that lift the aircraft into the air like a hummingbird and then fly it like a hawk before landing from a hover. The Marines already fly missions with their Osprey, an aviation fuel-powered VTOL aircraft, and the Harrier jump fighter jet can land vertically. But over the years, each has encountered major mechanical failures, several of them leading to deadly crashes. In fact, Ospreys have gone down more than 10 times, resulting in at least 24 deaths, since the Marine Corps began flying them in 2007. 

To make eVTOLs practical, a whole set of technologies had to mature. Most important, fast-charging batteries needed to lose weight yet produce enough energy to drive electric aircraft motors and controls, along with the added weight of the multiple duplicate and even triplicate systems on board that put airliner-level safety within reach. Then there are the challenges in getting an already overburdened FAA and other regulatory agencies to come up with new aircraft specs, safety regulations, and flight-path rules for air taxis populating the sky.

So, the road here has been a long, messy, complicated one. But as these contraptions start to slowly take to the skies and the companies behind them begin to mark real launch dates on the calendar, the skies of The Jetsons and Futurama don’t seem so far off.  

This summer, the first paying customer will take German-company Volocopter’s single-passenger, 18-propeller eVTOL from Charles de Gaulle Airport to central Paris or from there to Versailles, a tech first timed to go along with the worldwide attention and visitors coming to town for the Olympic Games. 

Chinese air-taxi companies have been advancing faster even than American and European firms. While some industry observers have raised concerns about the rush to certification, in October, China’s equivalent of the FAA certified that eHang’s two-seater pilotless electric rideshare, controlled by computer with remote monitoring, can begin ferrying passengers, though there’s no word yet in which city it will launch. 

In November, a Joby air taxi took flight over New York City.

Along with the air taxis, people are lining up to be among the first to buy personal flying machines — meaning one without a professional pilot, a type of aircraft the FAA will let any average Joe drive. Silicon Valley’s Jetson Aero is building a single-seater eVTOL with eight propellers surrounding the driver. It looks like a mini dirt-track race car and weighs so little that it takes just two or three people to carry it. In videos, the aircraft skims along at 20 feet or so above the ground, banking around tree branches like a jet-ski skimming waves. 

Despite the troubling news that has swirled around other personal flyers — like the Kitty Hawks that reportedly kept catching fire — Jetson, which counts will.i.am among its investors, says it sold out its entire planned 2023 production run at $98,000 a pop. 

For those who want a true Futurama anywhere-to-the-sky flying car, the AeroHT subsidiary of leading Chinese EV automaker XPeng’s enclosed, two-seat X2 is rumored to go on sale to the public this year for an estimated $156,000. But that may be lost money for the buyers: All of these personal flying machines are likely to encounter close scrutiny from regulators and local authorities. Whether any of them will pass official muster remains in doubt.

With this new crop of competitors, the big hurdle is creating a sky that suits them. “Why aren’t we building cities in the sky?” asks Archer founder and CEO Adam Goldstein. “With eVTOLs, we can. The best places I know of are challenging to get to.” 

That future will start with trips to major metropolitan airports, where infrastructure is already in place: helipads on which to take off, land, and fast-charge batteries. On a good day, a car ride from Lower Manhattan to JFK takes an hour, but Joby claims its air taxi will need just seven minutes. And Goldstein says United Airlines plans to launch its initial rideshare services with his Midnight air taxis sometime in 2025, taking passengers to and from Newark and O’Hare, which Goldstein has said will cost $150 a ride. 

The plan is to expand from there with launching pads on the tops of buildings and parking lots. Once in the air, the speeding eVTOLs will turn the immensity of the sky into low-altitude skyways. Among many other cities around the world readying for the electric-flight future, Dubai is making plans to build vertiports, as the eVTOL taxi stands are called, to enable air taxis to connect four different parts of the city starting the year after next. Eve Air Mobility, founded by the Brazilian jet maker Embraer, projects that 245 of its electric air taxis will be flying over maddeningly congested, mountainous Rio de Janeiro by 2035, carrying 4.5 million passengers every year.

In November, Volocopter and Joby air taxis took turns hovering over the East River as New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced plans for the Downtown Manhattan Heliport to become the first heliport to support electric flight. 

“I am really excited about this moment,” Adams said, adding confidently, “Within our lifetime, many of you are going to own your own personal electrical helicopter. This is just unbelievable!”

AFTER MY JOBY “test flight,” company founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt and I walk to watch the real thing fly off the Marina airfield. So far, Bevirt sure seems like a contender to be the Orville and Wilbur Wright of the commercial electric-air-taxi industry, and he is perhaps its leading evangelist. 

Founded in 2009, Joby is the oldest and, at close to $4 billion, one of the most valuable public companies solely in the eVTOL business. Bevirt says he began dreaming about building a sustainable flying machine as a child. Through press interviews and news reports, he’s emerged as the industry’s most prominent voice. Today, his vision for electric flight stretches to a future where pavement and aircraft-engine exhaust become less and less blights on the planet. He’s testified to that effect before Congress. “The existential challenge of our time,” he tells me over herbed lamb chops prepared by the company chef, “is building sustainable solutions. This is part of the solution.” 

Bevirt became the first eVTOL billionaire when Joby, which today has around 1,500 employees, went public in 2021. Today, he’s 50 — a good-looking guy, tall and lanky, with sandy-blond hair, a short-cropped, graying beard, and lively, deep-set blue eyes. He almost always wears jeans, even when doing deals with airline and automaker execs and meeting with the state-government and military bigwigs backing his company. He comes across as earnest almost to a fault. He walks fast wherever he goes; every minute counts when his company is burning in excess of $300 million a year. As we speed along through the Marina factory, he doles out fist bumps and hugs to employees and calls out “Woot!” to everyone he encounters. 

His longtime friend, Jon Wagner, heads up the design team plus oversees all of the aircraft’s electrical systems. He met Bevirt in graduate school at Stanford. They’re now working on their second startup engineering firm together. “He is the same person today that he was in graduate school,” Wagner tells me when I visit the site he heads up in San Carlos. Before reuniting with Bevirt at Joby in 2017, Wagner was in charge of battery engineering at Tesla for almost five years. 

“JoeBen drew me to Joby,” Wagner says as we walk around the benches where employees wire electric-motor components. I ask him how Bevirt compares to his old boss at Tesla, Elon Musk. Wagner won’t tell me much but points out, “It’s a rather obvious comparison. Both are committed to sustainable transportation. They are similar visionaries.” 

Without needing to say how the notoriously callous Musk differs, Wagner volunteers about Bevirt, “He is a brilliant engineer on a mission, but a compassionate person. He cares about people. After watching him for many years, I can see how successful that is.”

IF YOU’VE SEEN one airplane, you’ve more or less seen them all. Not so with eVTOLs. In fact, no two makers’ flying cars or air taxis look much alike, and many have no resemblance to any airplane you’ve ever flown in. Some carry their propellers overhead, others have props that spin just off the ground. Some have a score or more props smaller than a window fan’s spaced around or over their cockpits on origami-like frameworks; others carry all of their propellers on their wings; still others have no wings at all. They can look like space aliens, birdcages, birds, and winged Formula 1 race cars.

Joby founder JoeBen Bevirt has dreamed of creating a flying vehicle since he was a child.

Ian Bates for Rolling Stone

Bevirt and I inspect his bullet-shaped aircraft. Big tinted windows cover much of the shiny white fuselage. With gull wings and a forked tail, Joby’s looks like a mechanical albatross. Its six hinging props are spaced on two extensions to the front, two on the wingtips, and two attached to the tail. Bevirt opens the door and lowers the folding stairs. I take a seat inside the cabin. The carpeted interior is roomier than my Subaru SUV, with the pilot seated upfront and two rows with two seats each behind that contain plenty of legroom and headroom. There’s a compartment for luggage stowage in back.  

We walk to the edge of the field to watch it fly. The aircraft rises into the milky-white sky. The six propellers then slowly dip in unison like actors taking a curtain call, and the aircraft transitions, as Joby terms it, into an airplane and quickly flies away. With a helicopter as chaperone, the eVTOL carves widening gyres two miles or more out from the Marina airfield. 

When it returns, Bevirt has arranged for the helicopter to fly far off. “Listen,” he says. The eVTOL hovers before settling down 200 feet or so away from me. The sound from the blades and motors is nothing like the slasher-movie screech of a drone or a chopper’s subwoofer Gatling gun that I might expect. It’s quiet, even soothing. I point out to Bevirt that the whoosh reminds me of a big industrial fan. He smiles as he tells me he and his team of engineers tried out scores of blade designs to find the current version. Amid the typical city’s 65- to 75-decibel range, nobody would hear the Joby aircraft producing around 45 decibels at 1,600 feet up in the sky. He’s convinced the absence of noise will make people on the ground welcome eVTOLs overhead.

But there’s something underwhelming about all of it. I realize our sci-fi future won’t fly in with a roar and won’t look like a jet or an ultra-luxurious limo the way we think of travel in small airplanes and passenger helicopters today. It’s more Camry than Escalade. In fact, Joby has partnered with Toyota to develop its future assembly line. 

But maybe that’s the point. The Joby aircraft is fast but not blindingly so, looks pleasant to ride but not in a way that puts a fat Wall Street bonus on display, and flies along fan-quiet and emissions-free. Those are its selling points. But, Bevirt claims, the ticket price will be, too — one day. 

“Our goal,” he tells me, “is to be competitive with the cost of ground transportation, but to deliver you to your destination five times faster and with a dramatically better experience.” But even if Joby is aiming to become the RAV4 of the sky, that widely affordable flight may take years to get here.

BEVIRT INVITES ME to his home in the Santa Cruz Mountains, on the other side of the range from Silicon Valley. He wants me to understand how much Joby’s eVTOL ties into this one particular place. We sit together alongside a pond not far from his handsome but not showy house. Reportedly 440 acres, his property sits amid the towering redwoods, bluffs, and steep cuts overlooking the Pacific Ocean. 

He grew up a few miles away. From second grade on, he took a Santa Cruz city bus home from school. After getting dropped off at a corner along Highway 1, he walked up a narrow, winding road through the redwood forests. He tells me he trekked uphill more than four miles to his family’s home in Last Chance. And as he walked, Bevirt remembers, “I dreamed of building something to fly home in.” He meant it. 

Despite that long walk, he speaks to me about his childhood with unabashed reverence: “I was the receptacle of so much good fortune.” To his mind, his luck included living without electricity or a phone. His and other counterculture families moved to Last Chance to break loose from American society and live communally amid the redwoods and meadows. Bevirt says his family “lived off the grid before it was cool to live off the grid. We had kerosene lamps and candlelight. We didn’t even have a telephone. I took care of the animals and worked in the garden. If you wanted water, you had to pump the water.” He says it instilled “a deep passion for sustainability.”

Anything he wanted as a child his parents said he could have. But he had to earn the money to pay for half of it or build it himself. So when he wanted a mountain bike, he built it — with full suspension before other bike makers thought of it. “As a kid, I became fascinated with computers,” he recalls, “so I needed to figure out how to get electricity in.” These childhood engineering projects gave him the confidence needed for tackling bigger challenges.

When he left Last Chance, he kept thinking of a flying machine. As an undergrad at UC Davis, he made his first coursework stab at engineering an electric aircraft. But batteries weren’t powerful enough yet. And anything driven by aviation fuel, he says, would have been “horribly loud. I didn’t feel it was workable.” He put his dream on hold. 

Not long after getting a master’s in mechanical engineering at Stanford, he founded a successful laboratory-robotics company. Eventually he sold it for a big payout. He also started and later sold a company selling his invention, the Gorillapod, a hugely popular articulating camera tripod. Today, Bevirt holds more than 150 patents and pending applications on his many inventions.

Rechargeable batteries gradually grew more powerful until Bevirt decided to go back to that dream of flying. With his own capital, he started up Joby 15 years ago in a workshop he set up with a handful of other engineers in an airy redwood building near his house. 

At the time, along with Ospreys, the military was flying runway-takeoff drones, and the first handheld civilian drones, little more than toys, were just hitting the market. But no working model for an eVTOL designed for carrying people existed. So, starting from scratch, they designed, built, and tested countless iterations of virtually every eVTOL component, from batteries, microcomputers, and controls to electric motors, propeller blades, fuselage, and wing and rotor configurations. “Because I didn’t come from traditional aviation,” he says, “it allowed me to think outside of the box.” Then they assembled the parts into scores of radio-controlled scale models and watched them fly.

We drive down a ski-slope steep, rutted dirt road from his house through the towering trees until arriving at a former quarry pit. This is where Joby set up testing for tethered flights of the early scale models. Joby still tinkers with its propeller blades at the bottom of the quarry. I watch a single blade spinning while suspended on a wheeled trolley racing around a track. Acoustic tests at the site measure the sound the blade generates. 

By 2015, Joby flew a smaller version of its basic eVTOL design for the first time. In 2017, a full-scale model took to the skies. And in 2020, Toyota became Joby’s biggest outside investor to date, ponying up almost $400 million. At present, according to Bevirt, Joby has the potential to produce tens of eVTOLs a year. He wanted Toyota as a partner, he explains, because of the Japanese company’s global reputation for turning out vast numbers of reliable cars. 

Aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus, Boeing, Cessna, and Sikorsky assemble their jets and helicopters mostly from parts engineered and produced for them by suppliers. Those firms then sell their products to airlines, militaries, and private buyers. Joby integrates all aspects of engineering and manufacturing — from microcomputers to propeller blades, as well as some of the robots that assemble components that go into the finished aircraft. But Joby wants to automate some of the manufacturing processes to turn out aircraft at a pace more like terrestrial cars.

“The piece I’m ecstatic about,” Bevirt says, “is all the manufacturing processes we put in place to build conforming parts” — that is, like a modern robotic auto-assembly plant. “We now have what we need to turn the dial” to produce components and assemble aircraft quickly enough to drive costs way down. 

Bevirt won’t tell me how much the handful of aircraft the company has built to date cost, but he says the long-term goal is to get the cost to around a million dollars each. At the Joby assembly plant in Marina, I see Toyota engineers working alongside Joby personnel to develop automated ways to start turning out a projected 500 air taxis each year in the company’s factory, which Bevirt announced in October will soon go up near Dayton, Ohio.  

Another Silicon Valley electric-air-taxi firm, Archer Aviation, is taking the more traditional route, assembling its Midnight eVTOL mainly from off-the-shelf components. By doing so, the company says, it will get into the air-taxi business faster and at a lower cost per aircraft than competitors like Joby. 

Archer founder and CEO Goldstein says he wants 6,000 Midnights flying by 2030. But Archer has yet to fly its Midnight beyond a hover and, like Joby and Volocopter, faces significant regulatory hurdles before gaining FAA certification to fly commercially.

Goldstein thinks the pathway to success will be straightforward: Just swap the helicopter for the Midnight. “To start putting these things into service isn’t so crazy,” he says. “We are just swapping equipment that’s safer and quieter.” He explains that if the single motor or gearbox on a helicopter fails, the chopper can go down. But, he claims, on the Midnight every critical system has duplicates that will keep it flying even if any of them fail. And because electric motors have very few moving parts and no gearbox at all, he insists, “the odds of equipment failure are very low.” 

Goldstein also points out that passenger helicopters can cost anywhere from $500,000 to many millions of dollars and at least $300 an hour to fly. At those prices, it’s little wonder that, he claims, “the average American takes one or fewer helicopter flights in their lifetime.” But Archer partner United plans to fly even those who aren’t members of Succession’s Roy family. “We do want to put a lot of planes in the sky that are way safer than a car at a cost lower than a car to operate,” adds Goldstein. Maybe they won’t only fly the Roys of the world, but the day when we can all afford to get around by air turns out to be a long way off.

ABOUT A MONTH after my time with Bevirt in California, I attend a public conversation between him and Ed Bastian, CEO of Joby airline partner Delta, at a New York City tech-entrepreneur and investor forum. From the rooftop balcony of a chic riverside hotel hosting the event in Brooklyn, I watch helicopters flying over a twinkling Lower Manhattan and across the East River, probably ferrying their passengers to LaGuardia and JFK airports, or perhaps out to estates in the Hamptons. 

Like those posh rides, Bastian says of the Joby air taxis, “the early days we’ll have it as a premium service.” He anticipates that business-class ticket holders will book a Joby ride on the Delta app — just like they now do with Lyft rideshares. He eventually wants the Joby air taxi to take his passengers right to their flight at the airport, so that they can walk straight on board. But until costs come down, those who don’t have front-of-the-airliner tickets will still have to fight traffic and stand in the TSA line. 

It’s easy to imagine how this innovation could be just another thing that divides the rich from the ordinary traveler even more. That is, for those who will trust them. 

“Will people get on this airplane? I don’t think you can reliably survey the question,” Brian Yutko, CEO of Boeing’s air-taxi company Wisk, tells me. “You can’t get accurate data because it’s hard for people to imagine.” But he points out that 20 years ago few people imagined they would one day dial up an Uber or Lyft. Now, of course, millions of people get around in rideshares every day. 

But there is a familiarity to Ubers and Lyfts — they use old-fashioned cars and operate like regular taxis. 

Completely rethinking how we use our skies will take time. Just look at the slow and rocky rollout of self-driving cars — and those are using existing infrastructure. And, while not the virtual free-for-all of city streets, urban air space changes unpredictably and, potentially, without notice. Trees grow, construction cranes rise, wind turbines spin, power lines get stretched, new structures go up all of the time.

And what happens if an air taxi crashes into a high-rise or a battery bursts into flames midair? While commercial air travel is by far the safest form of transportation, many people are already scared of flying. “One major urban crash,” former NTSB chair Hart contends, “could result in termination or at least lengthy suspension of the entire industry.” The crunch of an air taxi hitting the ground might crash the whole business. Many people who now refuse to fly in small airplanes and helicopters because of their spotty safety records will need lots of convincing before they opt to fly in eVTOLs.

And will they even consider the versions with no driver at all?  “I intend to be the first person to fly on this airplane,” says Yutko, who contends Wisk is on track to start its pilotless air-taxi service sometime before 2030. “It has to be safe, just safe.”

As I sit with Bevirt earlier at his house amid the fragrant redwoods, moist Pacific Ocean air, and Santa Cruz Mountain stillness, he looks ahead at all of the challenges. He sees flying cars and air taxis as more than just a faster way to get from place to place. “As an engineer,” he says, “I care about getting people there as safely, efficiently, and quickly as possible. But I think there’s a lot of opportunity to see the beauty of the world from above.”At one point, with a laugh, he quotes me a line from Back to the Future: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”