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A flying, all-electric taxi sounds like sci-fi, but some experts say you could be sitting in one in just 3 years

April 5, 2022, 5:43 PM UTC

You just got off an eight-hour London-to-New-York flight when the taxi driver delivers the bad, if not unexpected, news: The traffic is brutal, so it will be slow going to your Midtown Manhattan hotel. “A good 90 minutes at least, bud,” he says.

Your alternative is to take the AirTrain, but traveling by rail means the hassle of switching trains with all your bags, and it barely saves any time. And so you sit it out in the taxi and stew—all while feeling pretty rotten about the massive carbon footprint you’re amassing on the way.

Enter the electric air taxi.

This is exactly the type of dilemma these Jetsons-like vehicles are intended to solve. Electric-powered air taxis would not only speedily shuttle travelers from point A to point B, up and over congested ring roads and not-so-express expressways, they would do so burning zero emissions.

While this may sound far-fetched, Rob Watson, president of the electrical division at Rolls-Royce, got the industry buzzing in February when he declared at the Singapore Airshow that fully electric, small commuter planes will be zipping overhead in the next three to five years in most major markets.

The first stage of e-flight will likely come in the form of eVTOLs, an acronym short for a vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft powered by a battery electric system. Because these aircraft are designed to go straight up on takeoff and straight down on landing, eVTOLs, it’s assumed, will travel routes popular with today’s helicopters. The bull case: A burst in demand will lead to the construction of brand-new eVTOL landing and takeoff pads in and around urban centers, either atop buildings or at special-purpose landing strips.

After eVTOLs, Rolls-Royce, for one, sees the next step in electric flight taking the form of fixed-wing e-planes, able to fly up to eight people distances of about 80 to 100 miles on a single charge. By the end of the decade, the vision is battery-powered aircraft with 20 to 50 seats, traveling longer distances. Ultimately, engineers hope to get to aircraft capable of traveling distances of several hundred miles, a development that would require megawatts of power and could open the door to hydrogen-powered plane concepts like the kind Airbus unveiled two years ago.

The shift from planes that burn fossil fuels to new airframes that harness kilowatt power represents the biggest design breakthrough in commercial aviation since the jet age, some 60 years ago. And, Rolls-Royce’s Watson says, it’s one being pushed by twin forces: society’s increasing demand for cleaner transport options, and a recent surge in investment in the core technologies needed to get these aircraft off the ground.

“It’s still a journey that we’re on. But I think it’s moving from innovation into production. And that’s what’s really exciting,” Watson tells Fortune.

Making aviation history

Rolls-Royce itself embodies this fast-forward thinking. A few years ago, Rolls, makers of the massive jet engines that power Boeing and Airbus wide-body jets, turned its engineering focus to the task of decarbonizing commercial aviation by developing power and propulsion systems for electric planes. Last year, Rolls made aviation history when the Spirit of Innovation, a single-seat, electric-powered propeller plane that it codeveloped with partners smashed the speed and time-to-climb record for an e-aircraft. The plane hit a top speed of 556 km/hr (345 mph) on its record run last autumn.

An infographic showing the e-plane known as the Spirit of Innovation
Courtesy of Rolls-Royce

If any industry needs a net-zero revamp, it’s aerospace. Aviation is responsible for nearly 3% of all human-generated carbon dioxide emissions, a 2.5-fold increase since 2000, the International Energy Agency calculates. And then there’s the business case: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created an oil-supply shock that has grounded aerospace stocks around the world as fuel costs soar. Rolls’ share price is down more than 20% year to date.

But long before the war in Ukraine, Rolls was busy at work developing a battery electric system for e-planes known as P-Volt. The P-Volt generates 600 kilowatts of power, enough to fly six to eight people 80 nautical miles (92 miles). For the early use case, says Watson, “look at Northern Norway. You’ll see aircraft connect communities, hopping across the end of a fjord, rather than taking a one-and-a-half-hour drive” in a car. The e-plane can do the journey in less than 45 minutes, with zero emissions.

Rolls is partnering with the Italian airframe builder Tecnam to develop the planes for those journeys, which will be operated by Widerøe, a Scandinavian airline that specializes in regional flight routes. The maiden flight is planned for 2026.

Investment blitz

Since the pandemic, the aerospace and tech industries have seen a wave of investments in e-aviation startups. In January, Boeing invested $450 million in the Silicon Valley–based eVTOL maker Wish Aero. Other backers to jump into the market are United Airlines (with its investment in Archer Aviation), American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic (Vertical Aerospace), Bill Gates (Heart Aerospace), Larry Page (Kitty Hawk), and an army of SPAC investors (Blade Urban Air Mobility).

So far, investors are not put off by the uncertain timeline in getting the first of these aircrafts certified by air-safety regulators. The investment-case pitch is that the first e-planes will win certification approval in the next two years, giving the green light for planemakers to ramp up production and create a market virtually from scratch.

That explains why Rolls and others are circling 2025 on their calendars. “It’s coming,” Watson says.

That confident prediction is just what travelers in Northern Norway—and in New York City—probably want to hear. It would be a welcome change to zip from John F. Kennedy Airport to the island of Manhattan above the Van Wyck Expressway, rather than in the mass of cars crawling along it.

Correction and update, April 6, 2022: This post has been updated to clarify that United Airlines has invested in, and is partnering with Archer Aviation, and that American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have invested in Vertical Aerospace.

Each week, Fortune covers the world of innovation in Breakthrough. You can read previous Breakthrough columns here.

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