If winging across town in electric air taxis is to become a practical commuting option, their developers are going to have to figure out how to build hundreds of thousands of affordable aircraft. That’s a scale that’s more the territory of automakers than aircraft builders. So it’s no surprise that some urban air mobility hopefuls are linking up with automakers.
California-based Archer Aviation said Tuesday it has struck a partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to leverage the automaker’s design and manufacturing skills and supply chain to develop an electric aircraft that the startup says will take off and land like a helicopter and transition to flying like an airplane to carry a pilot and four passengers 60 miles at speeds of up to 150 mph.
Bankrolled by Walmart WMT e-commerce head Marc Lore, Archer’s founders Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein brought the startup out of stealth mode last spring after having made waves by paying top dollar to recruit highly regarded engineers from other electric air taxi startups. The tie-up with Fiat Chrysler is one way the duo is aiming to catch up to their competitors, and they say a focus of the collaboration will be on developing methods to mass manufacture parts made of carbon fiber composites, which air taxi developers are banking on to produce lightweight fuselages, but are difficult to work with. “The only people that produce those in large volumes today are the automotive groups,” says Goldstein.
They say the partnership with Fiat Chrysler began last year with design work on the aircraft cockpit, leveraging the automaker’s experience in passenger ergonomics. Its 300-engineer noise and vibration team in Detroit is going to consult on the design, and Adcock and Goldstein are hoping to source materials and components from Fiat’s supply chain to lower their costs.
While auto suppliers generally don’t produce parts that meet the rigorous safety standards required in aerospace by the Federal Aviation Administration, the pair say there are nonstructural components they can draw on: the cockpit will feature handles and seatbelts from Fiat Chrysler’s supply chain.
Battery cells and electric motors are other areas where Goldstein and Adcock say Fiat Chrysler could help. They’re not disclosing financial terms of the partnership.
A number of automakers are testing the waters of urban air mobility — a welcome development for EVTOL startups given the complexity and expense of developing the radical new aircraft. Toyota Motor has invested over $400 million in frontrunner Joby Aviation, which is aiming to bring a five-seat aircraft to market in 2023; Germany’s Daimler and China’s Geely are backing German multicopter developer Volocopter; and Hyundai Motor is developing its own electric air taxi.
Fiat Chrysler trails its rivals badly in electric vehicles, only recently having begun to make major investments due to the late CEO Sergio Marchionne’s skepticism over their performance and consumer interest. PSA Group, which it expects to complete a merger with shortly, has also been playing from behind in EVs.
If the partnership with Archer bears fruit, urban air mobility is an area where they may not be late to the party.
“Electrification within the transportation sector whether on roads or in the air is the future and with any new and rapidly developing technology, scale is important,” said Doug Ostermann, FCA’s head of global business development said in a statement. “Our partnership with Archer has mutual benefits and will enable innovative, environmentally friendly transportation solutions to be brought to market at an accelerated pace.”
Archer is aiming to begin test flights of a smaller two-seat version of its aircraft in the first half of this year. Its goal is to begin volume manufacturing of the final five-seat aircraft in 2023 and launch a passenger air taxi service in 2024.
That’s an extremely rapid timeline to develop a new aircraft with novel technology and get it past the gantlet of FAA certification, a stage no air taxi maker has yet reached. Goldstein and Adcock, who met at a hedge fund and made a small fortune by building and selling a financial talent recruiting firm, say their team has designed a simpler aircraft than competitors that will be both easier to certify as well as to manufacture. (They’re releasing scant details yet.) However, Archer’s roster is heavy with engineers poached from those competitors, like Joby and Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk, who have developed innovative prototypes but have never brought an aircraft through the painstaking process of certification to market.
While automakers may have mass production experience that aircraft makers lack, it’s unclear how far their help will go given that their methods and products don’t meet the much more rigorous safety standards of aviation.
Proving that an aircraft is safe to fly is only the first step. Manufacturers have to win production certification for every part and software program on an aircraft to show that they’re up to aerospace standards for strength, vibration and corrosion resistance, among other criteria, and they also need FAA to sign off on the soundness of all of their manufacturing methods.
“I don’t think you can take it as a slam dunk that you can take existing car production processes and assume it will be easily approved by regulators,” says John Hansman, an aerospace professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Adcock and Goldstein are confident that they’re taking the right approach. “Once we get into the meat of certification and you see how simple our vehicle is compared to others, we think we can catch up and pass some of the other groups out there,” says Adcock. “We think Archer will be one of the first if not the first vehicle to come to market.”