Flying taxis may strike some as overly futuristic, but Supernal, a new Hyundai Motor Group unit with a growing operational presence in Irvine, thinks the future is now: it is teaming up with the city of Los Angeles and U.S. Department of Energy researchers to see how the aerial vehicles are “poised to transform public transit in cities worldwide.”
Numerous companies—including Supernal, which recently established its engineering and R&D; headquarters in the Irvine Spectrum and is already approaching 200,000 square feet of space in the area—are racing to develop electrically powered flying taxis that in theory could be buzzing around major cities by the end of the decade.
Supernal is working to build an electric-powered vertical takeoff-and-landing vehicle—known in the industry as an eVTOL—that will carry four to five passengers in urban areas and nearby locations to start.
While tens of millions of dollars are being expected to be put into Supernal’s development, the expectation is that once the technology is up and running, pricing for a trip on the flying taxi could run about the same as a ride in luxury car service Uber Black.
Rethinking Urban Transportation
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), part of the Energy Department in Washington, D.C. said research shows the so-called “aerial mobility options” are nearly ready for takeoff and will change urban public transport.
“To inform the plans for a first-of-its-kind public eVTOL network, Supernal and NREL are collaborating with the city of Los Angeles to study this innovative aerial transit mode,” NREL recently said.
The collaborative research will look into energy costs, market viability, public acceptance, landing and takeoff sties, accessibility, and environmental sustainability issues.
Flying taxis face a number of regulatory and governmental issues prior to gaining local approval, including issues pertaining to takeoff and landing spots, safety, noise, and aerial congestion.
The NREL research “will allow our team to design a product that integrates with and augments existing transit options and effectively serves local community needs,” said Jaiwon Shin, CEO of Supernal.
In another key step in Supernal’s development, Hyundai is investing in a British company, Urban-Air Port, that is developing takeoff and landing sites for air taxis and cargo drones, according to a report on trade publication autoevolution.com.
The first vertiport site, in the English city of Coventry, has been dubbed “the world’s smallest airport.” It’s expected to be used for eTVOLs and autonomous delivery drones.
“This is the first time a big eVTOL company has invested in a UAM (urban air mobility) infrastructure developer,” according to the autoevolution.com report.
Urban-Air Port aims to have a couple hundred locations built and operational in the not-too-distant future, according to reports.
Closer to home, Supernal remains in growth mode.
Supernal in October struck a roughly 105,600-square-foot lease to occupy the entirety of one of the newer mid-rise buildings at Irvine Co.’s Discovery Park complex near Sand Canyon Road and the Santa Ana (5) Freeway.
Last week, Supernal representatives confirmed it had taken an additional 80,000 square feet of working space at another nearby Irvine Co.-owned building, pushing the company’s permanent total toward almost 200,000 square feet in Irvine.
While those spaces are getting final furnishing for use as primary offices as well as research and development, Supernal is also using temporary space of 19,000 square feet for its operations.
Electric vehicle maker Rivian Automotive Inc. has also occupied a large amount of space at the second Supernal building along Laguna Canyon Road.
JLL’s Dillon Knight and Curtis Ellmore represented Supernal in the two leases, according to Irvine Co.
South Korea-based Hyundai last year picked Irvine for the engineering headquarters for its newly formed division, which aims to get flying taxis into service in 2028. Supernal’s corporate headquarters are in Washington, D.C.
Supernal is rapidly hiring for the expected 300-person Irvine division.
The company was advertising 30 open positions in Irvine on its website as of Feb. 21, including chief test pilot and senior electrical design engineer.
With about 185,000 square feet of space in OC, Supernal’s local operational presence is close to that of a competing local company, Overair Inc. in Santa Ana.
Overair is working on its own air taxi—known as Butterfly—and last year more than doubled its local base of operations to 203,000 square feet.
The Santa Ana firm said Jan. 20 it had successfully started “Butterfly’s full-scale propulsion system test program, a significant milestone towards Overair’s target of first flight by 2023.”
Overair told the Business Journal on Feb. 22 that in the coming weeks “our team of full-time employees will exceed 100 as we accelerate hiring through this year.”
The growth of OC’s flying taxi industry has received a shoutout from Orange County big-tech guru and defense company chieftain Palmer Luckey.
“This is awesome from an Orange County tech scene perspective,” the founder of Anduril Industries Inc. said in a tweet on Feb. 12. Costa Mesa-based Anduril has been rapidly making strides with drone-related defense work, though there have been no reports of it developing any eTVOL products as of yet.
Added Luckey: “I am especially excited that they will be pushing to make this one of the first areas with eVTOL air taxi service!”
The Supernal website forecasts a 24-minute trip from Anaheim to downtown Los Angeles.
Other notable players in the rapidly expanding industry include Santa Cruz-based Joby Aviation Inc. (NYSE: JOBY), which is valued around $4 billion, and Germany’s Volocopter; each are promising to have aircraft in service by 2024.
Joby said in a statement on Feb. 16 that “one of its remotely piloted, experimental prototype aircraft was involved in an accident during flight testing at our remote flight test base in California.” There were no injuries.
The crash sent the company’s share price temporarily downward.