The sky race picks up the pace as the ‘flying cars’ fly closer and closer

The sky race picks up the pace as the ‘flying cars’ fly closer and closer

The sky race picks up the pace as the ‘flying cars’ fly closer and closer

An aerial view shows an EHang Air Taxi, an autonomous electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft flying near a helipad at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, in Jerusalem on September 12, 2023. [REUTERS/YONHAP]

Flying cars from sci-fi movies like Back to the Future and Blade Runner are no longer a vision of the far future.

With the United States and China in a head-to-head race to make the first urban aerial mobility (UAM), or what the industry often calls “flying cars” or “air taxis,” Korea is hot on the trail by lining itself up with American companies in terms of equity investments and strategic partnerships.

The United States is focusing on the aircraft’s performance, which also includes mileage and speed, while China is pushing hard for rapid commercialization by embracing less complicated technology.

The UN predicts that the proportion of the population living in urban areas will exceed 60 percent by 2030, making the UAM – which takes off and lands like a helicopter and navigates like an airplane – the ultimate transportation solution to combat traffic and environmental issues.

“Amid the ongoing US-China technological hegemony, technology has become an important factor determining national security, and the need for UAM development is growing rapidly,” said Lee Kyu-bok, vice president at the Korea Institute of Electronic Technology.

“Korea is in the early stages of UAM aircraft development and commercialization, behind schedule compared to leading global firms such as US’s Joby Aviation and China’s EHang,” Lee said. “Korea is quickly following with active cooperation between companies and the government. But gaining more competition is essential to prevent foreign products from dominating the market.”

The world’s enthusiasm to develop the flying car was on display at CES 2024 – a long playground of new vehicles debuting – where the show floor was filled with models of battery-powered flying cars.

The UAM market is projected to grow from $3.8 billion in 2023 to $28.5 billion in 2030 at 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 can ideally travel up to 240 kilometers (150 miles) on a single charge at a top speed of 320 kilometers per hour. [YONHAP]

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


Performance vs. Speed

It is not clear who will win the flying car race, but in terms of aircraft performance, the United States is first while China leads in terms of speed.

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

Joby’s S4 is also the first and only electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft to earn a special certificate of airworthiness from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The S4, a five-seat plane, can ideally travel up to 240 kilometers (150 miles) on a single charge. Its maximum speed can go up to 320 kilometers per hour. Joby has already done 2000 test flights with the S4.

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

“Joby provided about 2.25 billion dollars in investments [as of the end of 2023,] the largest sum in any flying car developer in the world,” Kim added. “It will likely receive Type Certification from the FAA by 2024.”

China’s EHang, however, is faster than Joby in terms of commercializing 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 that it has completed all certification processes before commercialization.

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

EHang is scheduled to market the aircraft within the year.

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

XPheng AeroHT, a flying car startup owned by Guangzhou-based XPheng, showcased an eight-propeller flying car at CES 2024 that ended last month in Las Vegas.

The two-seater plane can fly for up to 35 minutes at a speed of 130 kilometers. The range is a little more than 75 kilometers.

“Our product is a flying car, which is primarily a car, but also takes to the sky when needed compared to other global companies that do not have the capability of ground transportation,” XPheng AeroHT co-founder Tan Wang told Korea JoongAng Daily in one. last interview by e-mail.

Supernal's flying car concept was unveiled at CES 2024 in Las Vegas.  The 10-meter (33-foot) plane can run about 60 kilometers in a single flight at a top speed of 200 kilometers per hour. [HYUNDAI MOTOR]

Supernal’s flying car concept was unveiled at CES 2024 in Las Vegas. The 10-meter (33-foot) plane can run about 60 kilometers in a single flight at a top speed of 200 kilometers per hour. [HYUNDAI MOTOR]

Korea: The strategic follower

Korea is quite late in the market. Its ability to develop such an aircraft falls far behind American and Chinese rivals.

But it is fast-tracking with massive investments in various big American 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 for competed and collaborated in bringing flying cars to Korea with their partners.

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

It is running fast behind its rivals in the infrastructure sector, ranking third just behind the United States and China. In terms of technology, it is in eighth place among the top 25 countries.

SK Telecom invested $100 million in Joby Aviation in June to buy 2 percent of the US air taxi developer. SK received the exclusive rights to operate air taxi in Korea.

Hanwha Systems invested $170 million in OverAir to code the development of eVTOL aircraft, called Butterfly, which is targeting commercialization in 2026.

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

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

Tremendous applause and cheers erupted outside the Las Vegas Convention Center when Supernal unveiled its S-A2 electric flying car in a full-size vertiport at CES 2024.

The 10-meter (33-foot) plane can run about 60 kilometers in 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-seaters have poor business feasibility,” Supernal CEO Shin Jai-won told Korea JoongAng Daily on the sidelines of CES 2024. “Efficiency and safety will determine market success. ”

BY SARAH CHEA [[email protected]]

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