SFO in half an hour? Where will Joby’s takeoff end up taking us?
“Helicopter,” “air taxi,” “peopled drone” or “eVTOL,” Joby’s potential revolution opens a world of possibilities. Will it solve some of the more pressing problems of urban life or create a world in which some people live like the Jetsons while others are still Flintstones?
Before an invited crowd of hundreds just outside an airport hangar in Marina on a gray-ish summer morning last week, JoeBen Bevirt was grinning like a 12-year-old getting an autograph from Steph Curry.
And who could blame him? He’s likely been envisioning this moment for years, if not decades.
After a couple of bro-hugs — more like four, or five — with Ted Agowa, the CEO of Toyota North America, in front of a roaring crowd made up largely of his employees and business partners, Bevirt unveiled to the world the masterpiece of his company, Joby Aviation. It’s an all-electric aircraft that requires no runway, no fuel tanks, no earplugs. It is the next evolution of the helicopter, the design of which first emerged from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago.
The Joby craft sitting coyly on the tarmac before the crowd is small — with room for four passengers and a pilot — lightweight, sleek, ultra-quiet, and zippy. As the electric rotors begin to whir, the aircraft rises elegantly, like a dragonfly lifting from a lily pad, and takes a wide circle around the airport for about 10 minutes at a height of about 500 feet before touching down where it started. Leonardo would be thrilled.
Joby announced that a production-line prototype of the aircraft — different from the engineer-built one demonstrated for the crowd — has been certified by the FAA, and expects it to be the first aircraft of its kind to be delivered to a customer, in 2024. That makes the Marina event a pivot-point date in the emerging eVTOL industry.
That clumsy acronym stands for “electric vertical takeoff and landing” and Joby, based in Santa Cruz, is one of the major players in the industry sprinting to get its vehicle to market.
The industry is so new that an agreed-upon name for its product is yet to emerge. No one seems keen on keeping “helicopter” alive, “air taxi” is nobody’s idea of sexy, “peopled drone” is not likely to take off, and “eVTOL” is best left to the jargon graveyard. Of course, just as people now use “Uber” as a kind of shorthand for all app-based ride-hailing services, “Joby” might emerge as the handy name for these new vehicles, regardless of who’s manufacturing them. With new investment pouring into the company and the stock price on the rise, Bevirt might be grinning for some time to come.
Uber is, in fact, a relevant comparison, given where Joby and its competitors are all pointing. The eVTOL gold rush is headed to air-taxi services, an Uber of the air. In Marina, Joby head of product Eric Allison outlined generally how that might work by referring to what is likely the first and most immediate need for the service: leapfrogging traffic congestion when you have to get to the airport.
Imagine popping over from Santa Cruz to SFO in 20 or 30 minutes, ribbons of choked freeways below you. How many Highway 17-traumatized commuters would at least kick the tires on that? I can’t even count that high.
As Joby and its employees were taking that much-deserved victory lap in Marina, I couldn’t help but think of a book I read many years ago that fundamentally changed how I viewed the contemporary world. It’s called “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences,” and it was first published way back in 1996, long before Silicon Valley regularly used the term “disruptors” as a badge of heroism. There have been, of course, many more titles on the same theme released since then, and the idea of unintended consequences emerging from technological advances is certainly nothing new. (Ever heard of “Frankenstein?”)
But what “Why Things Bite Back” taught me, even back in the day of AOL dial-up, was that technological advances change the world in ways we don’t always see coming.
Technology is too often a hokey-pokey dance where solving Problem A — often an abiding obsession of thousands of human-hours and millions of dollars — creates an unforeseen and many times nuanced and profound Problem B. Maybe the trade-off is worth it; who wouldn’t accept a cure for cancer even if it meant a rise in, for example, dementia and other end-of-life afflictions? But we’re always considering these costs only in hindsight.
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That’s not at all to say that the world Joby is creating will be necessarily worse off than a non-Joby-ized world. There’s a chance it’ll be a much better world where more and more people are liberated from the tyranny of traffic and car culture. The point is that we can only guess at what that world will look like.
When it comes to traffic, claims that air taxis will ease congestion on roads is akin to the debate — big in Santa Cruz at the moment — about whether new housing construction will lower rents or home prices. Those particular problems, traffic and housing costs, are so big and intractable that it seems unlikely that any single solution will have an effect that Joan Q. Public is likely to notice.
Because of its expense and heavy carbon load, helicopter travel has always had inherent limits for the consumer market. But what happens when that same kind of travel is suddenly an option for those who are not in the same socio-economic circles as the characters in “Succession?”
It’s undeniably a great thing for those strapped into a Joby zipping over to SFO, but what about those still stuck in traffic? How will it feel to see some people living in a Jetsons world while you’re still in the Flintstones? In Bernie-bro language, helicopter travel is the realm of the One Percent. Does air-taxi service open that up to, say, the Ten Percent? Twenty Percent? That still leaves most people on the ground.
What are the implications of class resentment to watch some folks take the fast track? Traffic is, after all, people, and it’s a pretty convincing illustration of democracy. The Lamborghini and the 20-year-old Honda Civic both move at the same pace on Highway 1 at rush hour.
Of course, much will depend on the service’s pricing structure, which Joby has not yet announced. Too expensive and they don’t effectively undercut traditional helicopter travel. Too affordable and they’ll have problems managing demand, and create problems of scale.
Traffic itself is largely a result of exurban sprawl and gnarly traffic serves as a kind of cap on even more sprawl. What happens when this revolution in air travel removes those limits? If travel-time restrictions are no longer on the table, would relatively pristine natural areas suddenly be open to development?
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What does this industry mean for the future of air traffic control? The energy grid? Urban architecture? Democracy itself? It’s not necessarily Joby’s job to engage in this kind of hand-wringing about the hundred side effects of the revolution it’s bringing about. Its job is to deliver a safe and effective product to the market. But these questions are still hanging in the air.
Think of, to take just one example, the deep after-effects of the success of Airbnb. More travel options have come at a price of, say, bringing transient populations into formerly settled residential neighborhoods, or restricting the market for long-term rentals in the midst of a housing crisis.
What are the possibilities for deep, maybe unanticipated change if Joby is successful? In every sense of the term, the sky’s the limit.