Detroit will finally build those flying cars we were promised.
On Jan. 12, the electric aviation company Archer announced it is partnering with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to mass-produce its aircraft starting in 2023. The manufacturing arrangement with one of the world’s largest automakers, ostensibly the first of its kind, promises to presage other electric aviation startups’ attempt to crack the massive market for short-haul electric aviation.
Archer, along with rivals such as Joby and Beta, is building a vertical take-off and landing aircraft intended to provide “faster, sustainable, and affordable urban transportation.” These electric aircraft straddle the line between airplane and helicopter: Multiple electric rotors allow aircraft to take off or land similar to a helicopter, and rotate for airplane-like horizontal flight. Archer’s vehicle is expected to carry up to four passengers at speeds of 150 mph for 60 miles. Future battery technology could extend that range significantly.
“We’re building the world’s first all-electric commercial airline,” claims Brett Adcock, Archer’s co-founder, who sees “incredible demand” for short affordable urban flights between 20 to 100 miles at prices competitive with UberX, about $3 to $6 per passenger mile. The 60-person Archer team is based in Palo Alto, California with investors including Marc Lore, the CEO of Walmart eCommerce.
Solving the manufacturing dilemma
One of electric aviation’s greatest challenges (beyond safety certification) is mass production. Designing a working prototype is now table stakes in this industry. As Tesla found out, heavy manufacturing at scale can easily bankrupt even the most well-funded companies.
To solve this problem, Archer turned to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), which produces about 4 million cars per year at its 100 manufacturing facilities and 40 R&D centers. FCA described it as a mutually beneficial arrangement: It gains experience electrifying vehicles (where it lags behind), and Archer gains access to low-cost manufacturing expertise. FCA already helped design the aircraft’s cockpit and will allow the production of “thousands of aircraft” per year, according to a company spokesperson. The first aircraft is scheduled to be revealed in early 2021 with the first public flights in 2024.
Delays are likely given the complexity of launching, literally, a new vehicle. But the announcement fulfills the initial prediction made last year by John Hansman, director of MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation: “You’ve seen some shakeup in electric aviation, but also see it get closer to reality” in 2020, he said. “It’s clear there will be the emergence of a new class of electric airplanes. In 2021, you’ll see hybrid and battery aircraft in service or close to being in service.”
Adcock predicted the electric aviation industry would gravitate toward its vertical integration model. The auto manufacturing partnership gives Archer that deep manufacturing integration it needs, while theoretically allowing Archer to retain control over product design and manufacturing that allows it to stand out in a highly competitive market. Archer will brand the aircraft under its name. “It’s a competitive advantage and incredible opportunity to control the product,” says Adcock.