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September 1, 2022

Flying cars—for real, this time

With investment from both the US military and commercial aviation leaders, the long-awaited flying car may actually be touching down soon.

The flying car. It’s been a tech holy grail for roughly half a century, to the extent it’s become something of a punchline (“I was promised flying cars, and all I got was this stupid Twitter!”). But if you follow the money, there are signs that vehicles that rise like helicopters and transport small numbers of people are actually in the offing.

Recently, the US Department of Defense more than doubled (to $75 million) its contract with Joby Aviation, which is developing electric-powered, vertical takeoff and landing vehicles—dubbed eVTOLs. The appeal of these “flying taxis” is that they’re cheaper to operate than helicopters and produce zero emissions.

On the commercial side, United Airlines has also put its money where its mouth is, in the form of a $10 million deposit with Archer Aviation for 200 four-passenger flying taxis. (Rival American Airlines has also made a commitment, but has not yet put down a deposit.)

There are hurdles aplenty, as this Fortune piece notes. Aviation governing agencies face the daunting tasks of certifying pilots and integrating flying taxis into existing flight patterns. But there is optimism that this fascinating tech will finally transition from sci-fi movies to your everyday life.

The Cognizant take

eVTOLs promise a clean, less noisy, lower-cost solution to the urban air mobility problem,” says Aditya Pathak, Cognizant VP and Head of Auto, Transportation & Logistics, Americas. Initial deployments will center around busy airports, connecting them to their business/residential cores.

However, Pathak adds, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification requirements and evolving business models around commercial operation “likely mean at-scale rollout is at least five to seven years away.”

The logistics industry offers another promising near-term application for eVTOLs, Pathak says. Lower operating costs, combined with the possibility of remote opperations across pre-defined flight paths, could make eVTOLs compelling substitutes where helicopters are in use today. Indeed, logistics has been learning from the experience gained in drone-based last-mile package delivery.

The pace of eVTOL adoption will depend heavily on safety certification requirements from both the FAA and its European counterpart, EASA. “While the FAA is looking to certify at a likelihood of catastrophic failure of one in a million to one in 100 million,” Pathak says—a rate comparable to but higher than that of similar sized aircraft—"the EASA is looking for a one in a billion likelihood,” which is similar to that for large commercial aircraft.

These levels require highly effort-intensive, rigorous software certification and Design Assurance Level A (DAL-A), for critical aspects of flight controls, battery management and navigation systems. In addition to the physical supply chain partnerships that will be critical in sourcing lightweight composites and battery materials, the software supply chain partnerships to design, build, test and certify the “brains” of eVTOLs will be equally vital.

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