Aim for the sky

Geely eyes flying taxi market as local rival EHang begins tests in Shenzhen


EHang’s future of transport?

When it comes to Geely’s love of all things German the sky has literally no limit. This week Li Shufu’s firm invested in flying-taxi start-up Volocopter – its second German purchase in as many years after acquiring a 9.7% stake in Daimler.

Daimler also took part in Volocopter’s $55 million fundraising round, Chinese news portal Guancha reported, which will give each firm a 10% stake in the Bruchsal-based company.

Founded in 2011, Volocopter inked a partnership with Dubai in 2017 for airborne taxis. Following Geely’s investment, it is expected to commercially launch in three years. There are also plans for the German firm to bring its flying cars to China with Geely, given Li said the investment is another step in its wider expansion into “electrification and new mobility services”.

That makes the Geely-backed Volocopter a direct rival of EHang, a Chinese company focused on developing and deploying autonomous electrical VTOLs (vertical take-off and landing vehicles), which is already building its first operational network of air taxis in China.

EHang was chosen at the beginning of the year by China’s Civil Aviation Administration to operate a pilot scheme in Guangzhou. It is now in the initial stages – testing the vehicles and the ‘vertiports’ it will need to support the operation.

EHang launched an aircraft carrying two passengers in Vienna this year and separately, flew a vehicle from its staff dormitory to a test pad in Guangzhou (the journey time was two minutes).

By the time the technology is fully mature, the company believes that its vehicles will be able to take passengers the same distance in three minutes that currently takes 30 minutes by road.

To the layman EHang’s e-184 passenger aircraft looks like an outsized drone. With eight rotors, it takes off and lands vertically. Inside the cockpit, there is a seat for a passenger, while a large tablet installed in the control panel allows the traveller to punch in their destination. The e-184 can reach speeds of 100 km/hour with a battery life of up to 25 minutes. A newer model is expected to carry two passengers and have a battery life of up to 40 minutes.

Cheerleaders for the technology say that compared with driverless cars these new autonomous flying vehicles have a big advantage: they operate in wide-open spaces, as opposed to narrow roads filled with pedestrians and other vehicles. Moreover, highly procedural tasks like autopiloting are where these machines typically excel.

The biggest technological hurdle facing the industry is how to improve battery life. While the lithium-ion battery is optimal for the initial commercialisation phase – given its long cycle life and strong charging power – there has been little breakthrough when it comes to capacity improvement, which means flights are limited to short distances.

For most consumers, safety is still their biggest worry: the uncertainty that comes during take-off and landing, not to mention the rare or random events that could cause crashes mid-flight.

According to EHang, the company has already devised multiple security systems to improve navigation safety. Also the power source is guaranteed by the safety management system: even if one of the battery packs fails, the drone can still operate stably. In the event of an accident – like running into a bird – the drone will automatically assess the damage levels and judge whether it is possible to continue flying safely or to land at an emergency landing point, says the company.

In the short run, EHang will need to convince investors of its commercial viability. In April, the company scrapped a plan for an initial public offering in the US to raise up to $500 million. Instead, it opted for a private fundraising round, raising half the amount, reported Genghis, a portal. In 2017, EHang closed an office in the US and actually declared bankruptcy in the state of California…

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