Los Angeles is shaping up to become the first major battleground in the potentially lucrative air taxi market. Already, industry players such as Hyundai, Archer Aviation, and Volocopter have partnered with community leaders who are setting the table for electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. And while it’s not the only city, experts say L.A. is ideally positioned to be the proving ground for what could be a trillion-dollar industry by 2040.
All three companies have partnered with Urban Movement Labs (UML), a Los Angeles government-community transportation partnership.
“What we’re trying to do is just bring experts together to understand what the community needs, what the industry needs, what the government needs, what the city Department of Transportation needs in terms of information to make decisions about all this,” said UML’s Clint Harper, a U.S. Air Force veteran with 23 years of experience coordinating and managing in the aviation industry.
Here’s who’s staked a claim for L.A. so far:
Volocopter is the latest to announce its interest. This month, it began partnering with UML as it engages with community leaders about possible route locations, noise mitigation, and local jobs resulting from the new industry.
Last July in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Volocopter made a big splash at the annual AirVenture airshow with a two-seat, 18-rotor eVTOL prototype dubbed Volocopter 2X. The brief flight demonstration was billed as the first publicly crewed eVTOL air taxi test flight in the United States.
Volocopter is developing three eVTOL models—for short routes around town, for suburb-to-city routes, and for transporting heavy-lift goods. Showing some swagger, the Germany-based company predicts it will offer air taxi service in Paris with its short-range VoloCity model during the 2024 Olympic Games—less than three years from now.
It’s worth mentioning that, after Paris, the next Summer Olympics will be held in Los Angeles in 2028.
However, in L.A., Volocopter will have to compete with Archer Aviation, among others.
“There are 50 million daily trips in L.A. on the ground, of which 5 million take longer than an hour to drive,” Archer co-CEO Adam Goldstein told FLYING. “So there’s an incredible amount of potential customers there that can be moved into the air. L.A. meets a lot of criteria that makes it super attractive.”
Archer also comes to L.A. with a potential leg up on its competition: It has the backing of a powerful and historic aviation brand.
United Airlines announced a $1 billion deal with Archer last February aimed at acquiring a fleet of up to 200 electric aircraft within five years to fly customers to United hub airports, including LAX.
Initial air taxi routes could connect LAX with smaller regional airports. Eventually they could include established heliports, and then, ultimately, to newly constructed “vertiports.”
“We think we’ll launch there with a pretty measured approach,” Goldstein said. “We’ll start on a point-to-point basis, one or two routes, then we’ll start to expand. We’re not going to just dump a bunch of planes into one city right away.”
The first flight for Archer’s two-seat demonstrator is expected by the end of this year. The company said its larger, commercial model will seat four passengers and enter service as soon as 2024. The design of the aircraft, dubbed Maker, includes a V-tail and 12 rotors attached to a single, fixed wing, mounted high on the fuselage.
Hyundai, which also is working with UML, reportedly is making progress on its own eVTOL. In June, the company COO told Reuters it could launch an air taxi service as soon as 2025.
Overall, the air taxi industry is designed to help solve two growing problems: climate change and urban traffic congestion—exacerbated by urban sprawl and aging infrastructure.
L.A. fits that profile, which helps explain why the city is shaping up to be a potential battleground for competing air taxi makers.
Proponents say small, electric, hovering aircraft will offer crosstown commuters a clean alternative to fossil fuel burning vehicles on the ground.
There are five big reasons why Los Angeles could be a defining market for eVTOL air taxi operations:
- Traffic: L.A. traffic has been among the worst in the U.S. for decades.
- Air pollution: Reducing L.A.’s infamous air pollution is important to local leaders.
- History: California traditionally leads the way on environmentally friendly technology.
- Weather: Southern California’s climate often creates ideal flying conditions.
- Infrastructure: The region has multiple airports available for takeoff and landing locations.
Speaking of airports, a recent Georgia Tech survey published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics suggested six area airports as potential waypoints for eVTOL passengers:
- Los Angeles International (KLAX)
- Ontario International Airport (KONT)
- John Wayne Airport (KSNA)
- San Bernardino International Airport (KSBD)
- Hollywood Burbank Airport (KBUR)
- Long Beach Airport (KLGB)
Also, L.A. comes preloaded with existing infrastructure downtown that “could potentially be converted to vertiports,” according to the Georgia Tech survey. “From the 1970s until 2014, [L.A.] had regulations requiring buildings above a certain height to have a heliport on their roof to assist in evacuations.”
One of the major challenges facing the industry will be noise mitigation, specifically during takeoff and landing at vertiports. How loud will these aircraft be? Expectations are hard to measure at this point. Archer hasn’t provided a noise level for its aircraft while it hovers near ground level. Volocopter has reported a hover noise level of 65 decibels at a distance of 75 meters (246 feet).
Compare that with a Boeing 747, which creates more than 100 decibels during takeoff, measured at a distance of 2 miles, according to Volocopter.
As for establishing takeoff and landing sites, Archer has announced it’s already working toward launching a global vertiport network, starting with Los Angeles. Many of these landing pads would be located on rooftops of existing parking garages, the company says. “We need to make sure that we can move people through quickly, because the whole value proposition is saving people time,” Goldstein said. “Obviously, the number one thing that matters is safety. So we’ll work on that on a small scale and then scale our way into that over time.”
UML intends to work with communities surrounding these facilities to make sure their concerns are heard and addressed.
“The first phase of this is educational,” Harper said. “UML is trying to help stakeholders cut through the Jetsons and flying-car-fantasy information out there. It’s really about aviation. And with electric distributed propulsion technologies, we have an opportunity to not only integrate a new mode of transportation within the city but also improve an entire industry by solving some of these most pressing issues: noise, emissions and accessibility.”
UML has started a series of one-on-one interviews with community-based organizations, including groups interested in improving the commuting experience. They’re engaging with bus commuters, women and mothers, pedestrians and bicyclists, and other groups. “Some of those groups are actually among the more skeptical” about air taxis, said UML executive director Sam Morrissey.
Morrissey said these discussions touch on questions like:
- Who would be able to access air taxis?
- How will they impact people who live near vertiports?
- How could these facilities contribute to jobs and professional development?
Staff and Resources
UML also will be working with local leaders to make sure the city will have the staff and resources necessary to plan for what the eVTOL rollout will look like, Morrissey said. They’ll be discussing key questions such as: Do they have the right amount of people to review plans or to approve building and safety permits related to development?
The group will also be communicating with state and national groups such as the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which manages airports at the state level, and federal entities such as NASA and the FAA.
“Because this is such a new field, we’re in a position to share lessons learned and maybe help influence what the federal guidelines will look like,” said Morrissey, who has more than 20 years of transportation planning and development experience in the region.
Harper said he expects Los Angelenos could see the first certified eVTOLs above their city by 2024. “That would likely be followed by a gradual scale-up to more widespread operations,” he said. “What that’s going to look like and how that infrastructure will look on the ground has yet to be determined.”
“We’re trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves,” he said. “We’re trying to move at the speed that the industry is moving.”