But everyone calls them by a far more romantic name: flying cars.
The video, which Lilium says was shot on May 4, near its Munich headquarters, shows the Jet’s sole test so far. In the roughly 15 seconds of footage, the five-seater does not rise more than a few feet off the ground. It does not carry any passengers: A licensed pilot stood on the ground during the test and controlled the Jet remotely. And it does not fly either forward or backward—though Remo Gerber, Lilium’s chief commercial officer, says its smaller test models have done so.
But the company says the test nonetheless represents a major milestone because the five-seat model will “serve as a template for mass production,” according to a spokeswoman for Lilium.
Eventually, Lilium hopes to use a fleet of five-seaters to ferry customers around metropolitan areas or between cities. It claims that flights booked through its app will be price-competitive with major airlines, but require far less infrastructure investment than an airport. A Jet requires only “a heliport type of structure, plus parking spaces around it,” Gerber told me. “It’s nowhere near comparable to any rail or road investments.”
“We are very confident that we will have it in a number of different cities by 2025,” Gerber said. He envisions Jets linking New York to Boston, Philadelphia, or the Hamptons. A flight between downtown Manhattan and John F. Kennedy International Airport would cost $70 and take only six minutes, he says. Today that trip by taxi takes at least an hour, but costs about the same.
At least 16 companies are trying to build electric flying cars or taxis, according to Transport Up, a news site that follows the budding industry. And Wired reports that a number of companies have already discreetly met to plan regulatory change. But only a handful have made successful test flights. Vahana, a start-up owned by the European aerospace conglomerate Airbus, says that it has made 50 test flights with its full-scale model, totaling more than five hours of flying time. Both the U.S. giant Boeing and the Silicon Valley–based start-up Kitty Hawk have completed test flights of smaller VTOLs.
Lilium stands out by promising a far longer range than most of its competitors. While many companies say their VTOLs will travel 60 miles on a single charge, Lilium says (but has yet to prove) that it can eke out 185 miles. “We don’t have a magical battery,” Gerber said, adding that the Jet’s solid-body wings and dozens of small electric motors allow it to cruise while using little energy.
Greg Keoleian, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan, could not comment on Lilium’s specific range claim, but he agreed that VTOLs are more efficient when cruising forward than when hovering. In a paper published last month, Keoleian and his colleagues found that a fully loaded flying car could be more efficient than an electric car at a distance of more than 60 miles. Flying cars are more efficient—and emit less carbon pollution—than gasoline-burning cars when going longer than 21 miles.