If Lilium’s flying taxis really take to the skies in just a few years as the company predicts, they could radically reshape cities by reducing the time and cost involved in traveling long distances.
Compared to cars or trains, flying taxis could allow greater flexibility of routes while needing much less infrastructure to get started, said Dr. Remo Gerber, chief commercial officer at Lilium. This means people could potentially live further from work while needing less time to travel for about the same cost as ground-based transportation options.
“We are talking about a fundamentally different way of moving people fast, over long distances, at speeds that are just not heard of,” Gerber said. “We believe that creates new opportunities. So this is how you’re going to experience the future.”
Gerber was speaking at Slush, the annual technology conference in Helsinki, Finland. Lilium is one of several companies racing to develop airborne taxis that are electric and self-piloting. Following its first successful test in 2017, the Munich-based company raised $90 million in venture capital a few months later.
Earlier this spring, Lilium staged the first takeoff of a five-seater jet that represents its longer-term vision for flying taxis.
At Slush, Gerber discussed the technical details of the jet and also explained the company’s larger vision for reinventing travel and people’s relationship to cities.
“The Lilium jet is an entirely new concept of how we think about mobility,” Gerber said. “And we coupled that … with Lilium services. So our ultimate goal is to create a new proposition for mobility for people to be able to travel on a daily basis through the air.”
The Lilium Jet
The company was founded in 2014 and has grown from 30 employees about two and a half years ago to more than 400 today. The bulk of the team is working on the jet that will form the core of Lilium’s service.
The jet can seat five people, including the pilot, and can fly 185 miles on one battery charge, at a speed of 185 miles per hour. The wing and engine design significantly reduce power consumption, allowing it to operate on existing electric battery technology. And it takes off and lands vertically, meaning the vehicle would only need roughly the same amount of space as the stage on which Gerber was speaking.
“We really truly are taking the electric cars up into the skies,” Gerber said.
While the company is currently navigating regulatory processes in Europe and the U.S. to have the jet certified, it’s also working on making the flight experience more pleasant. Among the chief challenges is reducing engine noise.
“Our teams have simulated down to the last vortices how the noise is generated by these types of engines,” he said. “Then they go on the computer and continuously, in fast iterations, change the blade shapes to manipulate what the noise looks like. And then on top of that, they rebuilt the casing around it and rebuilt the materials in the casing to absorb noise.”
He added: “We have an aircraft that is quiet and that isn’t going to bother us, and it takes off a few hundred meters from where we work.”
Flying taxi network
Another major advantage of flying taxis, Gerber argued, is the lower cost of infrastructure needed to create the system. High-speed rail lines or highways represent huge investments that can take a decade or more to realize, and then only provide rapid connections along limited routes.
Flying taxis should turn those calculations on their head.
In big cities, Lilium will try to leverage existing infrastructure by building landing pads on top of tall buildings or public parking garages. Just 16 cities with flying taxis could create a network of 100 connections. The hope is that it creates enough potential convenience to convince people to try and hopefully embrace the service.
Gerber said Lilium’s ambition is that these hubs of flying taxis are robust enough to transport millions of passengers each year. Of course, much of that will depend on the pricing, which hasn’t been determined yet.
Lilium’s flying taxi hubs will be connected to other mobility options — such as ride-hailing services, public transportation, and scooters — to get passengers to their final destination. The broader goal of the service is to create a network that’s convenient enough for people to use every day. With one app, a rider can order a Lilium jet ride but also coordinate their other last-mile transportation modes, Gerber said.
“With this new mode of transport, you’re totally changing the game and the radius of life and the areas that you can cover and connect,” Gerber said. “So you have about a 25-fold increase of places that can be connected. And it’s a true network effect that comes with that. And that’s what’s going to allow us to scale this in a rapid way.”
The system will also target rural destinations, where building high-speed trains or highways wouldn’t make financial sense. In France, for instance, a small town in the Pyrénées Mountains may be two hours by car from a city like Toulouse, including an hour on a major highway and then another hour on smaller rural highways. In theory, a flying taxi could cut that trip to 30 minutes.
“This is the type of technology that can really change the difference between large cities and smaller extra-urban environments,” Gerber said. “Because all you need to build is reasonably small structures. You need one landing surface, a few parking spots, and suddenly behavior changes. You can live somewhere else and you can then very easily be in a large city center. And that is really fundamentally changing how we can use our land, how we can plan for our holidays, how we can really connect different societies in different communities in a way that is simply not possible today.”
Gerber added: “This is my personal dream. I want to be able to work in exciting tech centers. But I also want to be able to be 20 minutes later on holiday out in nature. I want to connect these places and do that in a way that is least invasive, do that in a way where I’m not coming with a polluting, loud engine, but something that actually very seamlessly fits into that environment.”
Gerber predicted the cost would be competitive, enabling the service to be a daily option for many travelers. Lilium is betting it can keep the price of a ticket affordable by minimizing battery costs, carrying five passengers, and offering a wide range of convenient destinations that encourage frequent usage.
“If you fly fast, you can fly a lot,” he said. “That means more people in an aircraft sharing those costs.”
Meanwhile, Lilium is already in talks with cities about launching the service. The goal is to have the fleet in the air by 2025. When that happens, Gerber promised the jets will fly at high altitudes with quiet engines so people won’t have a sky full of aerial taxis buzzing over their heads.
“This is not a sort of dystopian crazy future where the skies are going to be dark,” Gerber said. “[T]hat wouldn’t be something anyone would want to have.”