Changing America

Flying robot taxis could ease traffic problems in major cities sooner than you may think

Wisk is a Boeing-backed “Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing” aerospace company in Mountain View, California that is building unmanned air taxis for commuters living in congested cities who want to skip the traffic.

The average commuting American spends more than 250 hours every year in transit, which totals to more than 10 full days. That number only goes up for commuters living in heavily congested areas like Los Angeles, Chicago or New York City.

The conventional strategy for mitigating traffic in big cities usually involves the building of additional infrastructure like bridges, tunnels and roads. But for more than a decade, an aerospace company in Mountain View, California, now called Wisk, has been developing an unmanned air taxi that aims to allow commuters to fly over the traffic and get to their destinations in a fast, predictable, and affordable manner.

These air taxis are called “Electric Vertical Take-off and Landing” vehicles or eVTOLs for short. Wisk’s eVTOL, nicknamed “Cora,” is not the only vehicle of its kind being developed in Silicon Valley. The space has become saturated with startups trying to get their product to market. But Wisk is one of the first companies in the space, and because they are privately owned, they have the advantage of being able to develop their aircraft without the pressures of public shareholders.

“I am thrilled that we’re a private company and not facing public company pressures,” says Gary Gysin, CEO of Wisk. “This is a brand-new market and a brand-new technology. Today there are zero customers. We don’t announce an entry into service date, in contrast to some other people in this space. We don’t do that because, one, we’re going to develop a safe aircraft, and two, the regulatory authority like the FAA, they’re the ones who decide when you fly. We don’t decide. We do the best that we can to present our case, but at the end of the day, they decide.”

Although the company officially became Wisk in 2019 following the joint venture between Boeing and Kitty Hawk Corporation, the Wisk team has been hard at work for more than a decade and have completed more than 1,600 successful test flights with no recorded incidents of failure. Earlier this month, Wisk unveiled their sixth generation of Cora to the world. This sixth generation of aircraft represents the first-ever candidate for FAA certification of an autonomous, passenger-carrying eVTOL air taxi.

The sixth generation of Cora is a four-passenger, fully electric vehicle with a cruising altitude of between 2,500 and 4,000 feet. It has a range of 90 miles and a cruising speed of about 120 knots (138mph). Although it has taken more than ten years and six generations of aircraft to achieve these specs, Gysin considers them secondary to one thing — safety.

“Our priority for the aircraft is first and foremost safety. It’s being able to fly an unblemished track record. Building that comfort from a self-flying perspective, that people are comfortable getting in our aircraft. So safety has to be everything that we do. Nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter how big the aircraft is, how fast we fly, how much time we save. None of that matters if it’s not safe. And so that’s the guiding principle.”

But as a secondary goal, Gysin and his team hope that they can bring a service to the public that everyone can afford.

“The key part of this for us is to be able to price this so that a college student or someone just entering the workforce can afford to take this as an everyday mode of transportation. Our target is UberX-like pricing. Ultimately we’re going to get to three dollars per passenger mile. We do not want this to be a premium helicopter service. We very much want this to be an affordable service that everyone can take.”

Wisk’s aspirations of hyper-competitive pricing are owed, in great part, to their artificially intelligent navigation system. According to Wisk, about 93 percent of commercial air travel is fully automated. Wisk is aiming to make 100 percent of their rides fully automated.

Wisk also claims that their automated system will be safer than human piloted navigation. Although there are no pilots in the cockpit, there will be pilots on the ground watching over all the flights to ensure smooth operation and to add a level of safety and security which allows the human pilot to take over if a problem does arise.

The Cora is fully electric. Having a fully electric vehicle means they have less maintenance and fewer moving parts on the aircraft. This will allow them to save money on fuel and replacements, and represent a climate-friendly alternative in the air travel industry.

“Our plan five years after entering into service is to have several thousand aircraft in the sky, we’re moving 40 million people, 1.7 million flights. We’ll be in 20 different cities globally, and we’ll keep expanding,” says Gysin. “Our vision for this is to really give time back to people.”

But getting to market is still an uphill battle, as the FAA wrestles with developing a new regulatory framework to accommodate the burgeoning eVTOL industry. Earlier this year, the FAA decided that instead of certifying eVTOLs using the same rules as most small airplanes, they’ll instead be certifying them under “special class” provisions.

Lirio Liu, the FAA’s executive director of aircraft certification, addressed the change at the Revolution Aero conference in San Francisco last month. “Those frameworks will allow us to have technical policy specialists to develop project-specific regulatory requirements tailored to the unique aspects and the new designs we’re seeing,” Liu said. “These flexibilities can come in the form of special conditions or unique airworthiness criteria which we call a special class.”

The FAA is performing a balancing act of maintaining their strict regulatory policies while also not being overly disruptive to industry innovation. “Amid all this innovation, the FAA has a proven track record for safely certifying and integrating the new and novel designs and safety-enhancing technologies into the national airspace system,” Liu said, and she also explained that the FAA plans to take a risk-based incremental approach to authorization of these aircraft so that they might take to the skies sooner.

“Once we have the aircraft in the air flying, we’re able to take advantage of the lessons learned from these operations that we had approved to help us start refining that future policy,” Liu said. “Doing this, we’ve been able to better target our regulatory focus while ensuring that innovation drives the industry forward.” Wisk and other competitors are all waiting for the ultimate nod of approval from the FAA before bringing their eVTOLs to market. While Wisk does not want to give a timetable on when they believe that will happen, some experts believe that we could be seeing these in the skies in less than three years’ time.