Recently, the well-known eVTOL developer Kittyhawk run by Google veteran Sebastian Thrun and backed by Larry Page, shut its doors. While a handful of companies are working towards bringing Jetsons to life, many of them have failed to keep a check on reality.
Despite coming up with ambitious plans of developing electric air taxis as an alternative to polluted and crowded streets, Kittyhawk could not make a breakthrough and came winding down.
Why did Kittyhawk fail in its attempt?
Founded a decade back, similar to many of its competitors such as Volocopter, Wingcopter, Lilium and others, Kittyhawk assured that they are building an air taxi fleet that is ultra-quiet and highly efficient. The company claimed that its fleet can fly hundreds of miles on a single charge and remain pretty quiet in just 30 seconds of taking off.
As per industry experts, the collapse of Kittyhawk highlights the numerous challenges in mastering and delivering flying modes of transportation that remain unaddressed or even unnoticed by companies. Moreover, there are numerous regulatory approvals that the company had to meet to bring their offerings to the market.
To top these, Kittyhawk had to incorporate the necessary infrastructure to support a world of flying cars and vehicles, which is complex to achieve.
Safety issues plagued Kittyhawk
In addition to this, an investigation report by Forbes dating back to 2019 stated that Kittyhawk was plagued with safety and battery issues. After showing off its one-seater Flyer prototype and a two-seat electric self-flying taxi called Cora, Kittyhawk confirmed that it has decided not to sell the one-seater to individuals and has returned deposits to prospective buyers.
The report added that behind closed doors, Flyer encountered problems, including frequent breakdowns and fires involving batteries, electric motors and wiring. As per former employees, the fire at the Google-owned building reported to the Mountain View Fire Department, involved damaged batteries that had been pulled out of a Flyer that had crashed the previous day in flight testing under remote operation.
It was confirmed that no person was harmed or exposed to risk due to these issues.
Battery tech needs improvements
Notably, the existing battery technology needs to witness significant advancements to deal with this industry.
Peter Rez, an emeritus physics professor from Arizona State University, highlighted the constant challenge posed by lithium-ion batteries for this industry. These batteries output energy at a 50x lesser efficient rate than their counterparts that use gasoline. Eventually, these batteries require more energy to be used on flying cars and planes, thereby increasing the cost and weight of these vehicles.
Furthermore, Lithium ion batteries are prone to catch fire, and scientists understand that improving the highly flammable part of the battery, dubbed electrolyte, is pretty complex.
Rez further stated that aviation agencies require commercial planes to have sufficient reserve power to fly for a minimum of 30 to 45 minutes beyond their destination and this remains another key challenge.
Though companies in this industry hope to see improvements in the battery tech, there is no clarity on when exactly the same will happen.
Can other air taxi companies pick up pace?
Kittyhawk is just one of hundreds of companies that was intended to develop inexpensive, convenient, emissions-free air transportation over gridlocked traffic on the ground.
This news comes as another eVTOL developer with ties to Google co-founder Larry Page, Wisk Aero, is gearing up to unveil its new four-seat, sixth-generation prototype for a self-flying air taxi. Notably, Kittyhawk is an investor in Wisk as well. However, California-based Wisk is largely backed by Boeing.
The big question that might arise is if Google couldn’t persist in this industry, how can other companies thrive and realise their mission. The safe bet for many other eVTOL developers will be falling by the wayside in the years to come as the aviation sector, which is still in the nascent stage struggles to define itself in the highly challenging arena.
Will recession pose a threat to air taxis?
The market for flying cars or electric air taxis should mature this decade, soaring to $1.5 trillion globally by 2040, according to a Morgan Stanley Research study. The goal is to link urban centres with suburbs while leapfrogging traffic and cruising at 180 mph at altitudes of 1,000 ft to 2,000 ft.
To generalise, higher inflation has meant more revenue for business aviation, and particularly companies that can pass their expenses on to customers. This revenue allows a company to own and operate a business jet. Apparently, a recession could impact that capability. It could also make it more difficult for businesses to purchase aircraft, thereby slowing the growth of the market.