Industries in Depth

Flying taxis might be closer than you think. Here's what the experts say

a picture of a drone

Electric aircraft could revolutionize the transportation industry. Image: Unsplash/ Alessio Soggetti

Kersten Heineke
Partner, McKinsey & Company, McKinsey Center for Future Mobility (MCFM)
Robin Riedel
Partner, McKinsey & Company
Benedikt Kloss
Associate Partner, McKinsey
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This article was originally published by McKinsey & Company, www.mckinsey.com. Copyright (c) 2021 All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

  • McKinsey experts discuss the future of advanced air mobility, including affordable, safe and sustainable solutions for travel.
  • They agree that electric aircraft could revolutionize the transportation industry and be scaled to replace traditional taxis.
  • This tech shouldn't widen an already increasing digital divide, they note, but support all members of society.

Over the coming decade (or soon after), electric aircraft could become a popular mode of transportation and a viable alternative to traditional taxis. For unpiloted passenger drones, however, gaining public acceptance may take longer. Hear the predictions of three McKinsey experts on the future of advanced air mobility.

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Benedikt Kloss: Flying taxis are gonna happen. The question for me at the moment is when it’s going to happen—not if.

Robin Riedel: We will have aircraft that are much smaller than today’s aircraft, and they will be much more accessible. They’re going to land in your neighborhoods. You might take a short car ride or a micromobility scooter ride to get to the vertiport, and you’ll go through there just like you do at a taxi stand today. You’ll get on an aircraft that will take you quite rapidly across the city or to the next city or anywhere within a 100- or 150-mile radius.

Kersten Heineke: And this all will be one seamless experience. I imagine it to be fully integrated into my mobility app: my e-scooter ride to the office in the morning, the trip to the airport, the flight, the trip from the airport into the city, and then, again, the scooter for the last mile. It may even be one integrated ticket. All of these new vehicles are going to be fully electric; they’re going to be much cleaner and completely emission-free. Will advanced air mobility replace car ownership? I doubt it. I think it will be complementary.

Robin Riedel: Some of the timelines we see are very aggressive. I’m not quite as bullish as some of the public statements around how quickly we can ramp up the system, but in the medium to long term—ten years out—I’m actually quite bullish. I think this is a mode of transportation that will eventually become quite frequently used. It will be safe, it will save many of us time, it will be sustainable—so there’s a bright future to look forward to.

Benedikt Kloss: I would say that flying above the street is much safer than driving with other people on the road.

Will air taxis be autonomous?

Robin Riedel: Technology-wise, we’re getting there. I think the big hurdles we have to overcome are, on the one hand, public acceptance: Are we going to be happy flying in an aircraft without a pilot? If something goes wrong, who do we hold accountable? And how do we certify a system as “good enough”? Those are important questions that a number of working groups are working on, but that will slow us down in getting to fully autonomous aircraft. So, autonomous passenger flights I’m less bullish on; I think it’ll take us into the next decade before we see those.

Benedikt Kloss: The evolution that could happen is this: first, the pilot is in the vehicle. Then you take the pilot out of the vehicle and the pilot is on the ground, but you have a one-on-one operation—one pilot for one vehicle, but remotely operated. And then, over time, this ratio goes down.

a chart showing the adoption to autonomous vehicles
They agree that electric aircraft could revolutionize the transportation industry and be scaled to replace traditional taxis. Image: McKinsey and Company

Kersten Heineke: As for full autonomy—as in, the vehicle is doing all the decision making, and there is no remote observation—I don’t think this will ever happen. We don’t have it today in conventional air mobility: all the planes are supervised. I think we’ll see something similar in advanced air mobility.

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A multibillion-dollar market

Benedikt Kloss: People are ready for flying taxis. Across geographies, more than 15 to 20 percent of survey respondents say they can definitely imagine switching from their current mode of mobility to a flying-taxi service in the future. Passengers are spending more than $400 billion globally for taxi services every year. E-hailing is another $100 billion on top of that. If you now imagine that flying taxis can capture some of this market share and become a real alternative to the taxi by 2030, the market opportunity is in the range of several billion US dollars.

Robin Riedel: I think we’re going to see in the tens of billions of dollars in market size globally in the early 2030s. But I could see it scale up much faster if we hit all these “unlocks” right.

Kersten Heineke: By 2030, we will still see a sizable number of players out there: ten, 15, maybe even 20. Why? Because by 2030, the technology will still be ramping up. But, ultimately, I think there’s space for five or so players globally.

A growth industry that’s sustainable and inclusive

Kersten Heineke: We’re talking about the democratization of helicopter flight and, ultimately, the democratization of private jets. That’s something that many people would not be able to afford if it weren’t for these advanced air mobility vehicles. Taking a private jet is something that probably less than one percent, or much less than one percent, of the population will ever do in their entire lifetime.

Robin Riedel: It’s going to be so important that this is not a toy for the rich but something that is broadly providing value to people. There are many people in the world today who can’t afford a plane ticket, but if we really get this industry to scale, this could be the same price as a taxi. I’m excited about the ability of advanced air mobility to be sustainable and inclusive, and I’m excited to see the ramping up of a brand-new industry.

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Industries in DepthSupply Chains and TransportationUrban Transformation
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