South Korean automaker Hyundai unveiled its concept flying car, a full-scale prototype that is set to be mass-produced under a partnership it has struck with Uber Technologies Inc. (NYSE: UBER) for the latter's air taxi network, at CES 2020 in Las Vegas this week.
Envisioned as an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, the model is yet another addition to a series of similar conceptualizations across the eVTOL spectrum in recent years.
In many ways, Uber looks to be a one-stop solution to on-demand last-mile mobility. The company has diversified its services across several niches that include cabs, electric scooters, bikes and VTOL taxis, while also working on autonomous car technology to prise out its biggest cost factor — contract drivers from the "gig economy."
The VTOL taxi idea was first discussed by Uber in its white paper in 2016, calling it the "Uber Elevate" project, with the company outlining its ambitions of running test flights in 2020 and launching a commercial air taxi service by 2023. Though the VTOL segment is still in its nascent stages, Uber has flagged off a makeshift air taxi service in New York, where helicopters usher people between lower Manhattan and John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The new Hyundai-Uber collaboration will result in an eVTOL aircraft dubbed the S-A1, which will have the capacity to carry up to four passengers and travel roughly 60 miles at speeds topping 180 mph. Though this alliance is the first time Uber is working with a mass passenger car manufacturer, the company has already struck partnerships with established aerospace companies like Bell Aircraft, Pipistrel, Embraer and Boeing's Aurora.
"We believe Hyundai has the potential to build Uber Air vehicles at rates unseen in the current aerospace industry, producing high-quality, reliable aircraft at high volumes to drive down passenger costs per trip," said Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate, in his statement.
On the other end of the equation, Hyundai is inching toward providing solutions that transcend traditional automaker boundaries. Over the years, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have strictly dissociated themselves from creating services around their vehicles, with their measurement of success only about the number of vehicles they sell in the market every year.
However, the success of on-demand mobility services of late has led OEMs to consider venturing into mobility services, as the future of transport looks to be heading toward mobility as a service rather than mobility being viewed at as private ownership. This can be evidenced by the way auto giants like Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW invest millions of dollars into mobility services across Europe and North America.
"Our vision of Urban Air Mobility will transform the concept of urban transportation," said Jaiwon Shin, executive vice president and head of Hyundai's Urban Air Mobility Division. "We expect UAM to vitalize urban communities and provide more quality time to people. We are confident that Uber Elevate is the right partner to make this innovative product readily available to as many customers as possible."
The development of eVTOL aircraft will give credence to sustainable mobility, as eVTOL engines use much less power, have simpler powertrain systems than helicopters and run on electricity, making it easier and more effective to produce and operate.
That being said, Hyundai's S-A1 is yet to undertake test flights, with both Uber and Hyundai being tight-lipped on the road map to its commercialization. Within the eVTOL segment, cargo drones have relatively been successful, while human taxi eVTOLs are yet to prove their mettle aside from a few scattered tests.
Unlike cargo eVTOLs, air taxis also face massive regulatory hurdles that will take a while to circumvent. But with the growing number of players finding promise in developing eVTOLs for human transport, the segment might get its breakthrough quicker than expected.