Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 43 seconds.
Since Uber Elevate popularized the concept of urban air mobility (UAM) with its first Elevate Summit in 2017, eVTOL air taxis have been marketed primarily as a solution to traffic congestion. In its original Elevate white paper, Uber promised to “give people back time lost in their daily commutes,” using “three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground.” Frustrated urban commuters represent an enormous total addressable market, so it’s natural that investors would focus on that potential — even as others doubt whether flying taxis will have an impact on traffic congestion at all.
At the June 10 unveiling of Archer Aviation’s Maker eVTOL in Hawthorne, California, company co-founders Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein emerged as “the spiritual successor of the Uber Elevate mission,” as former Elevate employee Ian Villa observed on Twitter. In lines that could have been lifted directly from Uber’s script, Adcock said that Archer wants “to unlock a new way of traveling — one that lives in the third dimension, and has almost infinite scaling potential. Who hasn’t sat in traffic wishing they could just fly over all of it?”
Yet Adcock and Goldstein also presented another, more aspirational vision for urban air mobility — one that the social media influencers in their audience might describe as “living your best life with UAM.”
“Let’s talk about a couple examples,” Goldstein said during a slickly produced, 30-minute presentation that was livestreamed to a global audience. “Let’s say you live in Fort Lauderdale. You just got invited to the hottest tech party of the year, hosted by [Miami] Mayor [Francis] Suarez — you’ve got to go to that. But that 23-mile drive can take you 70 minutes; that’s just brutal sitting in traffic. We can fly that mission in under 14 minutes.
“Or let’s say you’re here in L.A., you’re in downtown, you want to go to Santa Monica, grab lunch,” he continued. “That 15-mile drive can take you almost an hour. We can fly that route in under eight minutes, because it’s actually not that far. We can do it for under $40.”
Or you could go rock-climbing after work, or fly to a mountaintop restaurant with incredible views, Goldstein suggested. “This transportation solution, it just goes beyond commuting,” he said. “Archer will connect people with the experiences that they want to have.”
Archer’s embrace of the Instagram set is a bold approach to gaining public acceptance for eVTOL aircraft, which industry observers agree will be critical to the success of this emerging market. While Goldstein’s examples might strike some community stakeholders as frivolous, they could also broaden the appeal of electric air taxis to younger customers who might have an extra $40 to spend on lunch, but not $40,000 a year for daily commuting trips.
Archer, meanwhile, spared no expense on its Maker launch party in Hawthorne, which was attended by a limited number of investors, partners, and media, including eVTOL.com. The two-seat technology demonstrator, clad in metallic vinyl wrap, was unveiled against 3D screens that provided a powerful illusion of the aircraft in flight — except for the fact that its 12 independent propellers remained immobile. While the airframe that was on stage is expected to begin ground and hover testing later this year, it’s still missing some key components, including batteries and wiring.
Archer plans to use Maker as a certification testbed for its still-unnamed production aircraft, which will be similar in appearance but large enough to accommodate four passengers and a pilot. Maker will be autonomous, and while it won’t fly with people, Adcock said that Archer is using it to develop autonomous systems that will be integrated onto future aircraft for safety. “We’re pushing hard on engineering problems such as GPS-denied navigation and sense-and-avoid,” he said.
Archer — which is going public through a combination with Atlas Crest Investment Corp at a post-money valuation of $3.8 billion — aims to certify its production aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration and launch commercial operations in L.A. and Miami by 2024. United Airlines has conditionally ordered up to 200 of the aircraft, which it foresees using to connect customers to its hub airports, including Los Angeles International (LAX).
At the Maker unveiling, Archer disclosed that it is modeling demand in its launch markets through an in-house data science project called Prime Radiant, which is helping the company understand where to put take-off and landing sites and what to charge for its service. In its previously released investor presentation, Archer projected pricing of $3.30 per passenger-mile, comparable to the cost of an UberX.
The company is designing its fully electric aircraft for speeds of 150 miles per hour (240 kilometers per hour) and a range of 60 miles (95 km), with nominal missions of between 20 and 40 miles (32 and 64 km). With fast charging between flights, Archer projects that each of its aircraft will be capable of more than 40 flights per day, which “will help unlock a high throughput transportation system for the masses,” Adcock said.
Reactions to the Maker unveiling on social media were mixed. Many viewers expressed disappointment that the aircraft did not power on or fly, although that’s not unusual for the first showing of a new aircraft model. Nevertheless, it suggests that Archer — which faces stiff competition on an aggressive timeline — still needs to strike a balance between building enthusiasm for its product and managing public expectations for what will inevitably be a daunting technical undertaking. While eVTOL-enabled rock-climbing trips may be in our future, we’re not there yet.