VIENNA — When you think about high-tech innovation and cutting-edge industry, you probably think about places like Silicon Valley or Shanghai — not the pastoral countryside outside of one of Central Europe’s most historic capitals.
But take a three-hour train ride west of the Austrian capital city of Vienna and you’ll come across the sprawling industrial campus where the aerospace company FACC is building a huge production facility to mass-produce thousands of pilotless flying drone taxis that it hopes will revolutionize personal transportation in cities around the world.
The EHang 216 “flying taxi” is still a prototype right now, but the hope is that the two-person vehicle becomes a commonplace cab in the sky, only with wings instead of tires and propellers instead of pistons.
By late summer or early autumn, the first serially produced vehicles will be delivered to the first of the many thousands of customers who have already ordered one. Which means that the era of getting from point A to point B in an autonomous airborne drone may not be years away — it may be here within months.
“This is as disruptive as the car or the train was,” Andreas Perotti, FACC’s chief spokesperson, told me in an interview during my three-hour visit to one of the company’s manufacturing facilities. “We’re realizing the dream of flying cars.”
But a big question looms over the entire enterprise: When we finally get flying cars, will we be too freaked out by the possibility of crashing to actually use them?
Inside FACC and EHang’s flying drone taxi
On Wednesday, I got a chance to sit inside the latest prototype of the EHang 216. While it wasn’t authorized to fly the day I arrived — it was under a gray tarp when I got there — I still got a good sense of what it would be like to ride in one.
The first thing you notice is that the two-person cab is quite compact. After finally managing to get in — the only way is butt first — I quickly realized how uncomfortably tiny the cabin really was. The dashboard, which featured two Samsung screens, rubbed up against my knees (I’m 6 feet tall).
The brown interior also looked cheap, although I was repeatedly reminded that this was still just a prototype and assured that the finished product, which has yet to be revealed, will fix all those inconveniences and improve the user’s experience.
The outside, though, is striking. The white and dark blue electric vehicle features eight wings, each fitted with two engines that combined make less noise than a helicopter (although it’s still loud). The plan is to get it no noisier than a chainsaw in the future — but even a chainsaw is pretty damn loud.
The prototype, which is pilotless, made its public flying debut last April at a big soccer stadium in Vienna. It wasn’t permitted to go too high or travel too fast, but its builders say the vehicle can travel for about 30 minutes at a maximum cruising speed of 80 miles per hour — even while carrying about 575 pounds.
Perotti told me he has flown in the EHang before and says it feels very stable when it takes off: “It’s kind of like riding in an elevator.”
If you want one for yourself, you’ll have to reach deep into your pocketbook. The current price for just one vehicle is around $340,000, though the company hopes to eventually reduce that price to about $110,000.
Still, FACC says that thousands of people have already placed orders for them.
The flying taxi market could be worth trillions. That’s with a “t.”
The world is urbanizing, meaning millions more people are now living in cities instead of rural areas. The worry for governments and city planners is that people will struggle to get where they need to go as cities become more and more crowded.
But where governments see a problem, companies like FACC and its Chinese partner, EHang, see a lucrative business opportunity. A January report by Morgan Stanley valued the air taxi market at about $1.5 trillion by 2040.
“Flying to work instead of being stuck in traffic jams — this has already become reality in some regions of Asia, and we wish to make it possible in the rest of the world,” Robert Machtlinger, FACC’s CEO, told me.
Some drone vehicles are already used in China, for example, though they’re mostly for cargo at this point. But the idea is to essentially create a worldwide ecosystem where getting into a pilotless, airborne taxi feels as normal as sharing a ride with Lyft or hailing a traditional, land-bound cab.
Aerospace giants like Airbus and Boeing have their own air taxi prototypes. And Uber, the ubiquitous ride-hailing company, plans to launch its own service as early as next year. In fact, Uber has already acquired landing pads at airports to better serve traveling customers and identified Melbourne, Australia, as a potential testing ground.
FACC’s leadership is confident that the company has many advantages despite the stiff competition. For one, it’s based in Austria, a country with vast, open land where it can build more plants if needed. It also has access to Austria’s large, well-educated, and highly skilled workforce.
But fighting off multiple other companies — including some from the same region that are also making big strides in this space — isn’t what FACC fears most. It’s the public’s response.
The biggest risk to FACC and the flying taxi drone market is perception
Air taxis may be flying above our heads with regularity sooner than we think. That, of course, is dependent on when countries finally regulate that market and dictate rules of the road — or, in this case, the air.
China may finalize its regulations for air mobility within two years, some experts say, while the US and Europe may do so on much longer timelines. That means China is likely to be the main testing ground for air taxis in the near future.
FACC, like others, is closely watching how countries are thinking about regulating their products. But regulations don’t really matter if customers don’t trust what the company is selling. “The biggest risk is that people won’t accept it,” Perotti told me. “Perception is a bigger challenge than regulation.”
That makes sense. The 2018 crash of an Uber-owned autonomous car that killed a woman in Arizona — the first fatal accident involving a pedestrian and a driverless car — led many to reconsider that entire market. Should a similar disaster involving a flying taxi drone occur, the entire industry could come crashing down.
It’s one thing to fear getting into an accident on the road; it’s another to fear calamity hundreds of feet in the air. And while some polls show people are intrigued by flying cars, in many instances they want to drive it themselves or wait to see how the technology fleshes out.
Which means FACC has made a high-risk, high-reward bet — and the public may soon decide whether it was a good one.
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