October 18, 2020 By Remo Gerber, COO, Lilium
Why Lilium’s eVTOL network plans look well beyond 20 kiliometres
The idea of Urban Air Mobility is pretty well ingrained in most people’s minds. It’s futuristic flying cars that hop around a city, perhaps taking off from a garden, before stopping at the local shops and then dropping the kids off at school. Of course, the reality is very different.
Taking a short hop from Lower Manhattan to Grand Central Station in New York, or from the English Garden in Munich to the main station, is not only impractical (you’d need hundreds of landing pads in one city) but it won’t actually save you any time as you’ll likely need to travel to and from the vertiport as well as check-in for your journey.
Instead, we set out to do something different. Different from what most people expect from electric air mobility and different from the vast majority of our competitors. With a range of up to 300 kilometres (186 miles), we’ll be able to focus on connecting entire regions with high-speed transport, rather than trying to persuade you that we’re quicker than a crosstown journey on an underground train or bike. In fact, contrary to the idea of urban air taxis, we think there will only ever be a handful of routes in our network that are shorter than 20 km (12 miles). That might sound surprising, so I’ve picked two examples – in Switzerland and Southern California – to illustrate how electric VTOL flight might be deployed most effectively.
Switzerland is blessed with excellent transport connections, a punctual train service and many beautiful places to go. And yet, even with world-class infrastructure, it still takes considerably longer than expected to reach these destinations from my home town of Zurich. Traveling with the all-electric Lilium Jet would allow me and others to complete these journeys significantly faster and at a price that would be comparable to a first-class train ticket at launch, and cheaper after a few years into operation. But the opportunity does not stop there. Because an air mobility service doesn’t require expensive land-based infrastructure like roads or rail connecting each point, we can rapidly create a network with hundreds, if not thousands, of route options, linking up major towns and cities to create significant economic impact, better land use, and increased access to industry, culture and nature.
A system with only 20 landing sites would create around 200 potential routes and 10,000 km of high-speed connectivity (assuming 50 km distance between sites). That’s three times the entire French high-speed TGV rail network for a fraction of the cost. Since we do not have to build tracks, which can easily cost more than $20 million per kilometre, we can connect smaller communities too, adapting the frequency of connection to match the demand. By adapting existing infrastructure like airports, heliports, or even the roof of a parking garage, there is a genuine opportunity to implement a network that could look like this, in less than five years.
The same argument applies to San Francisco and the Bay Area. Known for its economic activity, matchless creativity and for being surrounded by natural beauty, it is also a large urban area with many centres plagued by heavy traffic and high housing prices. What if we could change that, with high speed, all-electric travel? Today, traveling in and around the Bay Area is a challenge, but a Lilium service has the potential to improve journey times significantly. Assuming you start your journey somewhere around the Embarcadero (the eastern waterfront of San Francisco), travel times to Palo Alto would be around 45 minutes by car, 50 minutes by train, or 10 minutes via a mature Lilium eVTOL service. San Francisco to Santa Cruz would be 75 minutes by car, two hours and 51 minutes by train, or 20 minutes by Lilium eVTOL. San Francisco to Lake Tahoe would be three hours and 41 minutes by car, eight hours and 49 minutes by train, or 49 minutes by Lilium eVTOL.
If we imagine for a moment that you work in an office in Palo Alto, you could now choose to live in Hayward (five minute flight, $25), downtown San Francisco (10 minute flight, $50), or even San Rafael (15 minute flight, $70). Or maybe you want to escape to Lake Tahoe for a long weekend? That would be less than an hour on a Lilium Jet, at a cost of around $250 at launch and less in the near future. It might not be something you would do every weekend, but saving you three hours each way might well make it worthwhile for an occasional trip.
There are many sites that could host a vertiport in downtown San Francisco, ranging from piers to parking lots and the rooftops of existing transport hubs. And, with a regional approach to travel, we could effectively service the entire downtown area using just one or two pads. In the Valley, we could see vertiports providing high-speed connections to homes and corporate campuses, using shuttles buses, ride-hailing and micro-mobility for last mile travel. These could be placed alongside highways or next to the Bay, allowing us to minimize any ground impact by routing flights over the water, or above busy traffic arteries.
Our vision is not just about one city though. We want to create a regional network that connects smaller towns and cities and takes the pressure off our highly congested cities, helping to unlock billions of dollars of land value through more distributed growth, in turn improving the way we live.
A recent study showed less than 750 km (466 miles) of high-speed connectivity could generate economic opportunities worth hundreds of billions of dollars. A northern Californian Lilium Jet network, assuming a range of 300 km (186 miles), delivers more than 10 times that amount of connectivity, with throughput for millions of passengers each year, and yet would only cost in the order of $250 to $350 million to construct – a fraction of the tens of billions it typically costs to build a few hundred kilometres of high-speed ground transportation tracks, as we do not need the land and material.
Bringing this vision to life means parking some of the more exotic ideas about what this form of transport might look like and instead focusing on making it affordable, achievable, accessible and acceptable. We have developed a modular and affordable approach to infrastructure that will enable networks to scale fast. Our detailed costings show that a 5,000-square-metre vertiport (53,000 sqft), with one take-off and landing space and seven parking bays, could be built at ground level for as little as $10 million; and it would be capable of handling one to 1.5 million passengers each year.
In many cases, we could rapidly upgrade the existing infrastructure at smaller, regional airports, creating a connection for even less. And, by ruling out flights under 20 km, we avoid needing to traverse our cities in every direction, meaning we can deploy the Lilium service in the least intrusive way for communities, choosing our vertiport locations carefully to minimize any impact.
There is still much work to be done to define landing regimes and air traffic management to allow for a higher frequency of flights, but we have developed a detailed approach to infrastructure needs. We’ll also be sharing more information in the coming months about how our unique aircraft concept can deliver a low noise footprint.