Alef Aeronautics, a startup in San Mateo, California, just received the FAA’s Special Airworthiness Certification for its Model A flying car. The company, which has yet to announce a delivery date, is asking for a $150 deporting on the $300,000 Model A. The vehicle features a drone-like internal propellers and a promised range of 200 miles over land and 110 in the air. The certification notes that this is not the first aircraft of its kind, but Alef claims primacy as the first driveway-friendly, road-going EV with vertical take-off and landing capabilities. The flying car has arrived—to the next development phase.
The government calls this type of flying an eVTOL, or electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. (These are what’s found in Back to the Future: Part 2, the very movie that inspired Alef’s founders.) A sci-fi infatuation is common at flying car start-ups: These are dreamers and moonshot engineers, not your everyday urban planners. In the Tech Age, “flying cars” represent a hot investment sweetened by the romance of an unfulfilled Space Age promise. But how many proposed Jetsonmobiles are closer to dealers’ lots than napkin sketches?
The most legitimate end of the market has a different mission than Alef, whose Model A is meant for private ownership and personal use on the road and in the sky. Most eVTOLs near production will be part of a service to ferry passengers from airports to city centers over traffic, not through it. Hyundai subsidiary Supernal promises production of its SA-1 eVTOL by 2028, with full autonomous flight as part of ecosystem of urban travel that combines cars, planes, scooters and all in-between. Hyundai’s multifarious manufacturing expertise makes this timeline possible, as does a collaboration with robot-dog-maker Boston Dynamics.
Joby Aviation is a rarity among eVTOL start-ups: It has a production aircraft, a $131-million government contract, and investment from Toyota, Uber, and JetBlue. This June the company received FAA approval to flight test its first production prototype aircraft, and its stock—released in 2021 via a SPAC—soared. The Joby aircraft has six rotors, and in a trial, flew 155 miles on a single charge. If all goes to plan, Joby will deliver units to the US Air Force next year, making it the first eVTOL delivered.
The Archer Midnight is another air taxi without asphalt aspirations. The 12-rotor electric plane is designed to hop people over urban congestion in 20-mile stretches. It has a five-seat cabin, with a captain’s seat Archer hopes to obviate with autonomous tech. United Airlines has contracted to purchase the Midnight for shorthaul use as soon as 2025, despite a regulatory change that classifies most eVTOLs in a different category requiring more certification than standard light airplanes.
So what is the state of the flying car? With the exception of Alef and its mission to put planes in driveways, most “flying cars” are eVTOLs with no road-going aspirations. Even Alef is pursuing certification of the Model A as merely a “low-speed vehicle,” limiting it on road to 25 m.p.h.