We Wanted Flying Cars, and They Gave Us… Flying Cars! Catching up with Lilium

Josh Gilbert

Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) cars have been in the public’s imagination from the cartoon The Jetsons in the 60s to movies like Blade Runner, Star Wars and even the Weasley’s Flying Ford Anglia in Harry Potter. Where imagination leads, innovators create – and now we have growing competition to commercialize electric VTOL (eVTOL) vehicles that will change the face of individual transportation.

At our Cleantech Forum Europe last month in Antwerp, we had the pleasure of welcoming Patrick Nathen, co-founder and VP of Product at Lilium.

Lilium is building a 300km/hr, all-electric, on-demand, autonomous jet, able to travel for up to an hour on a single charge. As well as winning the Global Cleantech 100 Early Stage Company of the Year award back in January and delivering a keynote speech on Lilium’s progress, we were able to sit down and talk to Patrick about some of the developments at the company.

Below is the CTG take on the drivers and competitive dynamics in the eVTOL sector, as well as Patrick’s view on technological and business model hurdles on the path to Lilium’s commercialization.

A Quick Overview of Some Key VTOL Drivers

Congestion in urban centers can lead to increasingly unhappy commuters, so who wouldn’t want to fly above that mess! Some of the trends that are moving this from cartoons and special effects into operating vehicles that make up the urban air mobility landscape include:

  • Materials advances for light-weighting, strength and manufacturing flexibility
  • Sensors, controls, and automated flight guidance systems
  • Improvements in battery and electric propulsion technologies
  • Engineering and business model innovation

Due to the recent technological viability of flying cars, as well as the lucrative potential future market, over $194 million in venture capital has flooded into a handful of companies in the flying vehicle sector – $100 million of which has been raised by Lilium (source: i3). In addition to this venture funding, large corporates have also begun to explore participation in the space via projects like Uber Elevate, Airbus’s Pop.Up, Boeing’s acquisition of Aurora Flight Sciences, Embraer X, and Bell Air taxi.

The CTG View on Competitive Dynamics in eVTOL

Being first to eVTOL commercialization is an opening short at a large slice of market share. Lilium is deploying significant capital to work in parallel on several fronts (technological, supply chain, safety, business model) to make sure that the 5-seater taxi reaches commercialization in the early 2020s.

Although being first to market will provide an early advantage, much of the long-term viability of a VTOL offering will depend upon being able to offer an integrated end-to-end user experience, where first/last mile travel can be seamlessly included into the proposition. This favors competitors with established networks such as Uber, but Lilium is working towards developing multi-modal models of operation. Partnerships in the interim can provide this functionality, with in-house integration coming at a later date.

Another related, but equally important part of the commercialization puzzle is the role of data. Although test simulations have provided at least thousands of miles of flight testing for product optimization, there is a deficiency in data on business model optimization – how can a company like Lilium gather enough data to inform crucial decisions for developing optimal launching sites for early deployment pilots? Competitors such as Uber have huge amounts of data on travel patterns of users, and therefore a significant advantage in terms of understanding where and when users travel. Uber’s recently announced opening of an Advanced Technologies Center in Paris – focused specifically on flying taxis – shows the seriousness of rivals in challenging Lilium’s European activities.

From Lilium’s Perspective

eVTOL may seem an unrealistic prospect for many, but Lilium’s Patrick Nathen points to technological precedents which may mean VTOL services are ahead of other new mobility offerings in the race to commercialization.

Amidst the birthing pains of autonomous cars, it is important to remember that the systems in place today for autonomy in aerospace are much more developed and in much wider use than ground-based self-driving technologies. Today’s self-driving technology is already in deployment on commercial jets, with computer vision systems able to see small objects (like birds) in the sky, and effectively defining trajectories of travel. eVTOL could represent a real opportunity to redefine 21st century transportation, providing an attractive urban mobility solution that sits within a wider multi-modal network of mobility service providers.

Once Lilium’s taxi services reach commercialization, the long-term plans Patrick describes are ambitious – an integrated future offering that will not just benefit active users of Lilium’s jets, but also provide significant improvements to the standard of living for non-users.

By increasing the ‘daily action radius’ of commuters by nine orders of magnitude, the demand for central urban real-estate and rental prices will fall, standard transportation infrastructure will decongest, and a significant rebalancing of society at large will occur. We will no longer refer to LA or San Francisco, but rather the ‘West Coast’ as a sprawling, interconnected entity.

However, there remain near-term hurdles to overcome in the path towards this potential future.

Manufacturing scale up is an issue at the forefront of minds at Lilium. The company builds its own electric engines from scratch in-house, and scaling of this process will be both difficult and expensive. One argument is that the while intended for mass market, the use of eVTOL will initially be a more niche service. This can give Lilium time to ramp up production for wider commercial deployment.

Domestic regulatory agencies will be a difficult issue to negotiate. Media reports tend to point toward issues in terms of autonomous flight approval, but in reality, the near-term regulatory problems are much more mundane. Noise pollution in urban centers is strictly regulated, and the multi-propeller systems needed for VTOL can be very noisy – imagine 36 drones spinning in tandem, and you get the idea. Although electric motors significantly reduce noise pollution compared to other propulsion engines, noise pollution limits in urban areas are strict, and represent a very real issue to regulatory approval for the roll-out of eVTOL services.

Conclusions?

Patrick argues that autonomy is a question of if, not when. But there remain many questions to be answered. How will VTOL operate in urban environments? Will urban airspace become congested? Who is responsible for safety? For supporting infrastructure? And what of competing technologies vying for position in the future of urban mobility – why fly when you can tunnel, bike, or just get a ground-based autonomous cab?

There remains a significant way to go before the dust settles on the buzzword-laden new mobility ecosystem. Multi-modal autonomous eVTOL sounds crazy, but then again, so did flying cars!

 

An early flying-car prototype (anon) and a rendering of Lilium’s autonomous eVTOL taxi