Will VoloCity transform urban transportation?

| Interview

Both the bicycle and the automobile are said to have been invented in Southern Germany, near the city of Bruchsal. Soon, another transportation game changer could emerge from that part of the world. So says Florian Reuter, CEO of Bruchsal-based aircraft manufacturer Volocopter. His company is building multirotor electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, which it plans to offer for commercial use in 2024.

Volocopter is working on three types of eVTOL vehicles: the VoloCity, a two-seater urban air taxi; the VoloConnect, for traveling between cities and suburbs; and the VoloDrone, for transporting cargo. VoloIQ, the company’s digital platform, is designed to connect all of these services and allow consumers to book flights easily. Volocopter is one of several eVTOL companies that have recently gotten considerable traction in the investor community; the company has raised more than $350 million in equity and has formed partnerships to bring its services to a number of cities, including Los Angeles and Paris.

Reuter recently discussed his views on the future of air mobility with McKinsey’s Kersten Heineke. The following are edited excerpts of their conversation, which took place at a hangar in—where else?—Southern Germany.

Kersten Heineke: If Volocopter sticks to its announced timeline, just three years from now your aircraft will be flying above metropolitan areas, carrying people and products. How do you envision advanced air mobility [AAM] changing over the next decade? What will people be able to do in 2030 that they can’t do today?

Florian Reuter: I envision that by 2030, there will be a wide range of AAM options, for both passengers and goods. As a consumer, I will be able to simply tap my smartphone and it will show me all the different options. And I can choose the one that best meets my specific needs at that time—whether my priority is the lowest price or the shortest trip or something else. The options will have to be 100 percent sustainable, there’s no doubt about that.

I think urban air mobility—for example, air-taxi applications within cities—will start a profound transformation in the air-mobility sector overall. Specifically, the digitization and the electrification in urban applications will spread to other, longer-range missions until eventually we develop the means to fly, with 100 percent sustainability, from continent to continent. In 30 years, AAM will be as ubiquitous as any other transportation mode.

I can say that with confidence because this technology isn’t just promising—we’ve actually already shown that it works. We’ve had public demonstrations and test flights in many places, including Helsinki, Singapore, Paris, and Oshkosh, Wisconsin, so thousands of people have seen our vehicle fly. They’ve also heard it fly, so they’ve witnessed that this technology is extremely quiet. Our test flights have helped dispel the common misconception that these vehicles will be noisy.

Kersten Heineke: Which cities do you think will be the first to adopt AAM?

Florian Reuter: Mobility is a constraint in every city; that’s why we see a huge global market demand for AAM. The more prone to congestion a city is today, the larger the impact of the air option will be. The biggest needs are certainly in the megacities that have an underdeveloped infrastructure—particularly cities in Asia, which is why we are putting a lot of emphasis on scaling our services in that region.

Kersten Heineke: You’ve mentioned sustainability a few times. Did you consider other energy options besides electricity?

Florian Reuter: It was clear to us that if we want to be part of the mobility options of the city of the future, 100 percent sustainability is a must. The only way to head in that direction today is by going all electric. Over the longer term, fuel cells might play a role, but we’re certainly not there yet.

And it’s not enough to just have rechargeable batteries that use 100 percent renewable energy. The production of your vehicle—not just the operations of your vehicle—must be fully sustainable as well. We still have a long way to go on that front. But I’d say the entire industry, and society at large, is searching for the right solutions.

A $300 billion market?

Kersten Heineke: Many AAM players have been getting significant funding recently. How many will still be in business in 2030?

Florian Reuter: We are talking about an overall $10 trillion mobility market potential. If AAM can get $300 billion of that in the next ten to 15 years, that is a gigantic market opportunity, but it still represents only a very small fraction of the total market. So I see tremendous opportunity for growth for Volocopter and for many other players out there.

I predict there will be multiple players. But there probably won’t be as many as there are in the automotive space right now, because it takes an investment of almost $1 billion just to meet the initial safety criteria and get over the certification hurdle.

Kersten Heineke: Many stakeholders would all need to cooperate before air taxis can start flying over cities. What types of partnerships is Volocopter pursuing?

Florian Reuter: We want to transform the way that people move about our planet—and we can’t do that alone. This is a massive undertaking. We’re forming partnerships along the entire value chain so that we can bring urban air mobility to life.

On the supply-chain side, we have a very clear make-or-buy strategy, and we’re partnering with parts suppliers who have a huge legacy in the aviation domain. On the ecosystem side, there are certain elements that need to change before we can unleash the full potential of AAM: those have to do primarily with the availability of landing sites—or what we’re calling VoloPorts—as well as the availability of charging infrastructure and the implementation of next-generation technologies for managing airspace. We are happy to start with existing airspace-management technologies, but in order for our services to truly scale up, a technology shift—from traditional air-traffic management to universal traffic management—will need to happen.

The future of air mobility: Electric aircraft and flying taxis

The future of air mobility: Electric aircraft and flying taxis

We have partnered with numerous companies to help make this a reality, and we involve them in our test flights. For example, at the airport in Helsinki, we flew alongside legacy helicopters and large commercial airliners. We were demonstrating that we can integrate a Volocopter flight into the existing landscape, but also that we can work with partners to move toward universal traffic management.

The advent of autonomous aircraft

Kersten Heineke: What other cutting-edge technologies will you need in order to be successful in the next ten years?

Florian Reuter: We want our aircraft to be as lightweight as possible. At the same time, we want it to be as “performant” as possible, which directly relates to the energy and power density of the battery and the efficiency of the entire electric drivetrain. So we’re pushing hard on those two elements and exploring what is possible, always with an eye toward meeting the highest standards in aviation and getting the aircraft certified.

After that, the next technology frontier is autonomous aircraft. Autonomy will free up an additional seat in the aircraft and it will make AAM much more affordable and scalable. When you talk about autonomy, most people think of sophisticated computer sensors and algorithms on board the vehicle, but if we want to ensure that we can provide our services at a safety factor of ten to the power of minus nine—or one incident in one billion flight hours, which is the safety target that the European Aviation Safety Agency [EASA] has given us—then we can’t think only about the vehicle. We have to think about a system of systems. That has implications on the infrastructure that we use; it has implications on the reliability of GPS satellites, mobile-phone technology, and so on. So there are a host of technologies that we need to tie together to make sure that, ultimately, we can capture the full potential of AAM.

Kersten Heineke: How long will it be before we see autonomous aircraft? Five, ten, 15 years?

Florian Reuter: Many people were expecting that self-driving cars would exist by now. But there are two reasons why I believe we’ll see much faster adoption of autonomous capabilities in the air than on the ground. First, airliners have been flying on autopilot for decades, so there’s a level of autonomy that we’re already very used to, and have mastered very safely, in the air. Second, the air is a much easier space to control than the ground. Of course, we have to be aware of “noncooperative members” in the airspace—like birds or illegal drones—so we need to have a plan for how to deal with those. But, generally speaking, participants in the airspace are much more technology-equipped and much better educated than those on the ground, simply because there’s not much traffic up there.

Besides, the autonomy road map is being pushed not just by Volocopter and other members of this industry—it’s also being embraced by regulators worldwide. They know it’s coming and they see its advantages, so they are actively encouraging industry players to participate in the working groups to make autonomous aircraft a reality. I expect to see the first adoptions of fully automated flights within the next five years and, on a global scale, in five to ten years.

Kersten Heineke: What would you say to pilots who want to work for Volocopter but worry that in just a few years they’ll be unemployed?

Florian Reuter: When we talk about the maturation of this industry, we think of it in phases. In phase one, we put a pilot in the aircraft to fulfill the traditional regulatory requirements. We make it easy for the regulator to simply accept the VoloCity and VoloConnect as aircraft that resemble a helicopter, to a certain degree, and can integrate into existing air-traffic-management systems and can use existing heliport infrastructure. That’s how we can get started tomorrow.

For phase one, we have partnered with [pilot-training-services provider] CAE to make sure that we can train the necessary numbers of pilots to support our business expansion. But we want to scale our services, so, eventually, we want to take the pilot out of the aircraft. But we’ll still need trained pilots to oversee the operations of passenger aircraft as well as cargo drones.

It will be a natural progression from being a pilot on board—which will become more boring because the vehicle will be much more automated—to being a pilot on the ground. I believe this offers a compelling career path for pilots; it gives them tremendous opportunity for growth in a tech environment.

No ordinary start-up

Kersten Heineke: What’s the most difficult part of your job?

Florian Reuter: In this industry, you need an incredible amount of capital before you can start generating meaningful commercial revenue. This is a marathon rather than a sprint. Many of the start-up best practices—like A/B testing, “fail fast,” and all that—don’t really apply to this industry. Keeping everyone engaged—the team, the public, investors—on this very long-term journey has been a challenge.

I always saw the potential for it; otherwise, I would have never left Siemens to join what was at the time a four-person start-up. But it was difficult to predict how fast the vision would come to fruition. And we had a lot of internal debate over the years because we saw other companies applying very different approaches. We constantly asked ourselves, “Do we need to be more aggressive in our timelines? Should we put more pressure on regulatory authorities? Should we stay with electric power or go hybrid? Do we need to go after longer-range missions?” and so on.

Looking back, I think staying true to our original DNA has served us well. It’s been very rewarding to live through the emergence of this whole new industry that, today, no one is contesting anymore. Everybody’s just asking, “How exactly is it going to unfold?” Where we are today is an extremely exciting point in time.

Kersten Heineke: In 2017, Volocopter changed its corporate language from German to English. Any advice for CEOs who are thinking about doing that in their companies?

Florian Reuter: We made that transition when Volocopter had about 15 employees; we now have more than 400. I recognized that even if we hired best-in-class talent in Southern Germany, we would not be good enough to compete on a global scale. We needed to attract the best talent from all over the world. It was obvious to me that the company language was one element that we had to change to support our growth ambitions.

But language is just one element—it’s a highly visible one, but it’s not enough. You then need to change many other things: organizational structures, internal policies, IT systems, and so on. And in our case, we also needed to expand geographically. The city of Bruchsal is around the corner from where the automobile and the bicycle were invented, so we think of Volocopter as writing the next chapter in that history—but how many people have heard of Bruchsal? Probably not that many. So we’ve opened additional sites in Munich and Singapore, and we’re about to open an office in Paris.

Any company that has global ambitions must go through these kinds of transitions sooner or later—and I think there is great merit in doing it sooner. If your vision is to become a multinational company, start acting like one from the outset.

Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of McKinsey & Company or have its endorsement.

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