Sky race gathers pace as ‘flying cars’ hover ever nearer

An aerial view shows an EHang air taxi, an autonomous electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft flying near a helicopter pad at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, in Jerusalem on Sept. 12, 2023. [REUTERS/YONHAP]
Flying cars from sci-fi films like “Back to the Future” and “Blade Runner” are no longer a vision of a very distant future.

With the United States and China in a toe-to-toe slugging match to make the first urban air mobility (UAM), or what industry often calls “flying cars,” or “air taxis,” Korea is hot on the trail by aligning itself with the U.S. companies in terms of equity investment and strategic partnerships.

The United States is focusing on the performance of the aircraft, which also includes mileage and speed, while China pushes hard for fast commercialization by embracing less complicated technology.

UN predicts the proportion of the population living in urban areas will exceed 60 percent in 2030, which makes UAM — that takes off and lands like a helicopter and cruises like a plane — the ultimate solution for transportation to combat traffic and environmental issues.

“Amid ongoing U.S.-China technological hegemony, technology has become an important factor determining national security and the need for UAM development is on the rapid increase,” said Lee Kyu-bok, vice president at Korea Electronics Technology Institute.

“Korea is in the very early stages of developing UAM aircraft and commercialization, behind schedule compared to global leading firms like the U.S.’s Joby Aviation and China’s EHang," Lee said. “Korea is chasing quickly with an active cooperation between companies and the government, but gaining more competitiveness is essential to prevent foreign products dominating the market.”

The world's enthusiasm to develop the flying car was witnessed at CES 2024 — a long standing playground of new vehicles making their debuts — where the show floor was filled with mock-ups of battery-powered flying cars.

The UAM market is projected to grow from $3.8 billion in 2023 to $28.5 billion in 2030 with an annual growth rate of 33.5 percent, according to data from tracker MarketsandMarkets.

An S4 air taxi under development by Santa Cruz-based Joby Aviation. The five-seater aircraft ideally can travel up to 240 kilometers (150 miles) per single charge with a maximum speed of 320 kilometers per hour. [YONHAP]

Performance vs. speed
It’s not clear who is winning the flying car race, but in terms of aircraft performance, the United States is the front-runner while China takes the lead in terms of speed.

Santa Cruz-based Joby Aviation in December announced that it has completed a series of air traffic simulations of its aircraft S4 with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Joby’s S4 is also the first and only electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that earned a special airworthiness certificate from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

S4, a five-seater aircraft, ideally can travel up to 240 kilometers (150 miles) per single charge. Its maximum speed can go up to 320 kilometers per hour. Joby has already done 2,000 trial flight tests with S4.

“Range, speed and noise are considered the most important specs for flying car and S4 is one of the top five aircraft in all criteria,” said Kim Hyeon-yong, a researcher at Hyundai Motor Securities.

“Joby secured around $2.25 billion investment [as of the end of 2023,] the largest amount in any flying car developers in the world,” Kim added. “It will likely receive the Type Certification from the FAA by 2024.”

China’s EHang, however, is quicker than Joby in terms of the commercialization of its air taxi, but with a much shorter range and speed.

EHang’s EH216-S received the first Type Certificate for unmanned eVTOL aircraft from the Civil Aviation Administration of China last year. This means it completed all certification processes before commercialization.

EH216-S, however, is a multicopter two-seater aircraft that can run only 35 kilometers per single charge and reach a maximum of 130 kilometers per hour in speed.

EHang is slated to market the aircraft within the year.

“EHang in 2022 signed contracts with Japan’s AirX to supply 50 EH216-S aircraft,” Kim said. “It is expected that EHang already has signed other deals for tourist purposes from China, Japan and Southeast Asian countries.”

XPheng AeroHT, a flying car startup owned by Guangzhou-based XPheng, displayed a flying car with eight propellers at CES 2024 which ended last month in Las Vegas.

The two-seater aircraft can fly for up to 35 minutes at a speed of 130 kilometers. The range is a bit over 75 kilometers.

“Our product is a flying car, which is primarily a car but also takes to the skies when needed compared to other global companies that lack the capability for ground transportation,” XPheng AeroHT co-founder Tan Wang told to the Korea JoongAng Daily in a recent e-mail interview.

Supernal's flying car concept unveiled at CES 2024 in Las Vegas. The 10-meter (33-foot) aircraft can run some 60 kilometers on a single flight at a maximum speed of 200 kilometers per hour. [HYUNDAI MOTOR]
Korea: Strategic chaser

Korea is quite a latecomer in the market. Its ability to develop such aircraft falls way behind U.S. and Chinese rivals.

But it is chasing quickly with massive investments in various big U.S. names like Joby and OverAir to introduce them in the country no later than 2025. Seven consortia have been selected for the Transport Ministry’s K-UAM Grand Challenge to compete and cooperate in bringing flying cars to Korea with their partners.

Korea ranks 7th on the overall air taxi readiness index with the United States in first and China at sixth, according to a report from global consulting firm KPMG.

It's quickly running after its rivals in the infrastructure sector, placing third right after the United States and China. Technology-wise, it is in eighth place among the 25 top countries.

SK Telecom invested $100 million in Joby Aviation in June to acquire 2 percent of the U.S. air taxi developer. SK got the exclusive rights to operate the air taxi in Korea.

Hanwha Systems invested $170 million in OverAir to codevelop eVTOL aircraft, named Butterfly, which has targeted commercialization in 2026.

Kakao Mobility joined hands with British Vertical Aerospace and Germany’s Volocopter.

Korea’s own flying vehicle is currently under development by Supernal, a 100 percent subsidiary of Hyundai Motor.

Tremendous applause and cheers broke out in front of the Las Vegas Convention Center when Supernal unveiled its S-A2 electric flying car in a full-sized vertiport at CES 2024.

The 10-meter (33-foot) aircraft can run some 60 kilometers on a single flight at a speed of 200 kilometers per hour and a maximum altitude of 500 meters.

“Chinese companies are doing well, but two-seater aircraft has poor business feasibility,” Shin Jai-won, CEO of Supernal, told the Korea JoongAng Daily on the sidelines of CES 2024. “The efficiency and safety will determine the success in the market.”