German aviation startup Volocopter is teaming up with Grab, the predominant ride-hailing app in Southeast Asia, to launch an air taxi experiment. The two companies signed a memorandum of understanding to “look into the most suitable cities and routes to deploy air taxis in Southeast Asian cities; evaluate the best use cases for air taxis; and explore the possibility of joint flight tests, among other things.”
Volocopter recently demonstrated its electric aircraft at a tech conference in Singapore, complete with a temporary “VoloPort” landing pad that was meant to illustrate a future in which we use electric VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) vehicles to hop from rooftop to rooftop in dense urban settings.
Volocopter’s 2X aircraft is a small, egg-like multicopter fitted with a wide halo of 18 rotors. It is essentially an air taxi, built to ferry only one passenger at a time over the congestion, overcrowding, and road closures below. But instead of facilitating high-volume air travel between cities like an airport, Volocopter wants to focus on local point-to-point travel. When the company begins commercial flights in 2022, it says passengers will be flown from one VoloPort to another.
By 2035, the company aims to have dozens of VoloPorts across Singapore, each with the capacity to handle 10,000 passengers a day. The end goal is to not need any special infrastructure so that a 2X can land in a parking lot and take you to the movies.
The partnership with Grab is another sign that Volocopter sees Southeast Asia as a likely launchpad for its aerial ambitions. Headquartered in Singapore, Grab also operates Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia. “This collaboration also offers the potential for a much larger cooperation which could eventually extend intermodal mobility to the skies,” Florian Reuter, the CEO of Volocopter, said in a statement.
Grab isn’t the only ride-hailing service that’s eyeing air taxis as a possible investment. Uber has said it will launch an air taxi service in 2023 and is working with a number of partners, including VTOL startups and major automakers, to help realize its dream.
Many companies have promised to launch revolutionary new aircraft for years, only to miss deadlines or fail to live up to past promises. Kitty Hawk, the flying car venture backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, is reorganizing amid reports of breakdowns, battery fires, and returned deposits. Zunum Aero struggled to raise money and was forced to layoff employees after Boeing backed away as a backer.
The jury is still out on whether an electric VTOL-based air taxi system would make an appreciable contribution to a next-generation transportation system, or whether it would simply be an escape hatch for the super-rich to avoid street-level congestion.