By Rebecca Heilweil
Schlepping from downtown Manhattan to John F. Kennedy Airport by train or car during the New York City rush hour can certainly take more than an hour. But one Germany-based startup, Lilium, proposes a simple solution: flying taxis, which would take only about six minutes to traverse the city.
As urban congestion worsens, a future where we fly over traffic — instead of sitting in it — appears to be inching closer. Just last month, Lilium, which was founded in 2015, completed the first test of its new five-seater, all-electric flying taxi.
Called the "Lilium Jet," the aircraft boasts 36 engines and can travel up to 186 miles.
"There's an enormous amount of innovation that has gone into this entire new aircraft concept. You might be skeptical because you've never seen anything like this before," Remo Gerber, Lilium's chief commercial officer, told Cheddar. "The amazing thing is that you can make it affordable as well."
The body of the Lilium Jet is shaped like an oval, with a pair of flaps attached to its front and rear. The vehicle takes off and lands vertically. But as it ascends, the engines tilt, allowing the aircraft to benefit from the full surface area of its wings.
The company first flew an earlier model, a two-seater vehicle, back in 2017.
Even if they only have a few aircraft completed at first, Gerber says the short travel time will allow the company to accommodate a large number of passengers.
But Lilium isn't alone.
Competitors in the air taxi space include Joby Aviation and KittyHawk. Major aircraft manufacturers, like Airbus and Boeing, are also developing similar products. Uber and the Bell have also partnered to produce electric vehicles that vertically take-off and land, planning to launch [a commercial flying taxi service] (https://www.uber.com/us/en/elevate/) by 2023.
Comparatively, Lilium predicts its "air mobility service" will be available in several cities by 2025. Users would book rides and find the nearest landing pad through an app.
"Automation is for everybody in this industry," said Gerber. "It's 100 percent on our roadmap." Still, he warns that these air taxis will first be piloted by humans. "We believe at the beginning, it will be just pilots. Because, at the end of the day, that's what today's regulation demands, and what we're building is something that we can use tomorrow, or as soon as it is ready," he said.
"There are a number of different steps before we fly fully autonomous," he emphasized. "But the rules of the game will be the same for every single competitor here."
Right now, the company is focused on further developing its vehicle, and, he says, building "as many as possible as quickly as possible." Thus far, Lilium has raised about [$100 million] (https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/lilium-aviation#section-overview), according to Crunchbase.
Building an electric vehicle meant to facilitate travel in cities requires overcoming several engineering challenges. For instance, electric vehicles need batteries, which are still comparatively heavy. And when traveling in tight, urban spaces, an aircraft needs to be able to safely position itself for vertical take-off and landing.
Air taxi manufacturers will also need to appease regulators, who are still weighing how to best classify and govern these new vehicles.
The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that the agency has "specific procedures that authorize the agency to evaluate novel and unusual designs." The agency also pointed to recent changes in its airworthiness standards to allow room for newer types of flying vehicles.
Neither the European Union Aviation Safety Agency nor the United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.