The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

PitchBook Forecast Sees Crunch-time Approaching for Under-funded eVTOL Startups

According to PitchBook, a capital market data group, the uber-hyped advanced air mobility sector may be heading for a reality check as investors come to realize that timelines for revenues to start flowing will likely prove unrealistic. In research published today by mobility analyst Asad Hussain, PitchBook suggests that the crowded field of eVTOL aircraft developers is due for a shakeout, with a handful of well-capitalized start-ups set to leave cash-strapped rivals in the dust.

The report forecasts that revenues in the global air taxi passenger mobility market will grow from $1.5 billion in 2025 to $150.9 billion in 2035. These prospective returns spurred a surge in investment during the first quarter of 2021, with a handful of air mobility start-ups raising $3.8 billion from a mix of investors from the financial sector (venture capitalist, private equity, and special purpose acquisition companies) as well as the strategic sector (aerospace, automotive, and technology businesses).

According to Hussain, the advanced air mobility market still offers tempting returns for investors. “We see an opportunity for early-stage venture capital investors to back ‘picks and shovels’ enablement technologies, such as mobility services, autonomous autopilot, and engineering analysis tools,” he commented.

However, PitchBook urges caution and patience regarding the pace at which air taxi operations can start and scale-up. “Timeline expectations may be inflated as investors underestimate the complexity and capital cost of certification, as well as the technological, regulatory, and infrastructure-related hurdles required for mass adoption,” Hussain said. “Labor and supply shortages could weigh on the space.”

The PitchBook research highlights several dozen companies that he views as being in the forefront among eVTOL, eCTOL, and supersonic aircraft developers/operators, electric propulsion/battery innovators, autonomous flight, and airspace management specialists, drone developers, and air mobility service providers. It specifically names Joby Aviation, Volocopter, and Archer Aviation among what it defines as “well-capitalized leaders,” along with enabling technology pioneers Daedalean, Reliable Robotics, and PHM Technology.

“While the flurry of SPAC-driven public market debuts in air mobility has created a peak of investor expectations, we believe mass eVTOL deployments in the early-to-mid 2020s are unlikely given large technological, regulatory, and infrastructure-related hurdles,” the report concludes.

PitchBook’s analysts share the expectation that early-adopter cities for eVTOL air taxi services will include affluent locations with (typically) mild climates like Dallas and Miami. They anticipate that in the early days, a seat-mile price could be around $9 (comparable, says PitchBook, to current helicopter rates), and they expect this figure to drop below $5 as maintenance and other operating costs fall due to economies of scale.

The report also highlights the lofty expectations and assumptions on which some start-ups base their pitch to investors. For instance, Joby Aviation, which is now heading for a $1.6 billion IPO merger with Reinvent Technology Partners, is projecting $2.2 million annual net revenues for each of its aircraft, generating a “contribution margin” of 45 percent by 2026. This reflects the assumption that each aircraft will fly seven revenue-generating flight hours each and every day and with average load factors of 2.3 passengers­—a performance level that current jets and helicopters aren’t coming close to in the private charter market.

According to PitchBook, it will take at least $1 billion to bring an electric aircraft to market, including the cost of establishing production facilities. In its view, as of March 2021, only Joby, Archer, and Lilium had raised sufficient funds to meet this threshold. PitchBook feels that at this point, early-stage start-ups face a struggle to catch up in the dash for cash.

The report offers a useful overview of other issues facing the emerging advanced air mobility sector, such as supply-chain competition for electric batteries and a shortage of pilots (given that prospects for fully autonomous flight are still some way off). It also includes a summary of some of the leading investors in this space.