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Can Flying Taxis Work? Tencent Invests in German Aviation Startup Lilium To Find Out

Sep 05, 2017

The Chinese internet giant Tencent has become an investor in a German aviation company called Lilium, which is developing an electric flying taxi that can take off and land vertically but fly horizontally.

Lilium announced a $90 million series B funding round on Tuesday, in which Tencent joins existing investors Atomico and Obvious Ventures, along with the Lichtenstein-based private banking group LGT. Atomico is a venture capital firm that was set up by Skype co-creator Niklas Zennström, while Obvious Ventures was co-founded by Ev Williams of Blogger, Twitter and Medium fame.

Lilium said it will use its fresh investment to grow its team beyond its current headcount of 70 and build a five-seater vehicle called the Lilium Jet. The Munich-based firm showed off a smaller prototype of its electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle earlier this year, demonstrating how it could transition between its vertical and horizontal modes.

That maiden flight only lasted a few minutes. However, Remo Gerber, a former executive with ride-hailing firm Gett who recently joined Lilium as chief commercial officer, says the finished product will be able to fly for a full hour on a single charge, at speeds of up to 300 kilometers (186 miles) per hour. This would mean a five-minute journey between Manhattan and JFK Airport, for example.

"That is all on current battery technology," Gerber told Fortune. "We obviously believe batteries are going to get better."

It remains to be seen how Lilium's battery-life promises pan out. Energy storage is probably the biggest factor holding back the development of electric aircraft and, with people and luggage increasing the vehicle's weight, battery life becomes even more of a problem. If Lilium cracks this nut, it would be a very significant event.

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The Lilium Jet, which people will hail with an app, would at first use a human pilot in order to keep regulators happy. However, Gerber claimed the vehicle would be allowed to do "anything a small aircraft or helicopter can do today," meaning regulators should give it the go-ahead to serve customers in cities.

"Even in London or New York, you already have helicopter traffic," he argued, while suggesting that cities should embrace vehicles such as this, which make relatively little noise and offer decent energy efficiency. The landing spots will only need to be the size of a basketball court, he added.

It's not yet clear whether Lilium would run its own flight-hailing service or partner up with others on this aspect, Gerber said. However, he said the cost of taking a ride in one of these flying taxis should be comparable with that of a train ticket or road-based taxi, depending on how long the journey is and how many other passengers are sharing it.

Gerber was unable to give a precise timescale for the Lilium Jet's commercialization, saying only that the firm was "looking at several years of development and then, more importantly, going through the certification process." Uber has promised flying cars by 2020, though there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about such projections.

When Lilium announced Gerber's appointment last month, it also revealed its hiring of Dirk Gebser, a former Airbus exec who is now heading up production, and Meggy Sailer, the new recruitment chief who used to be Tesla's head of talent for the EMEA region.

Other companies working in the "flying car" space include Aeromobil, Terrafugia and Pal-V, although none of these are developing a fully electric vehicle.

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