The promise of flying cars has become an idea more synonymous with the tech world’s shortcomings than its exciting potential, but today one of the startups that has been focused on actually trying to make small, airborne vehicles a reality is announcing a fundraise and says it’s on track for a commercial launch in two to three years.
Volocopter, which has been building drone-like autonomous electric flying taxis for its own (as-yet unlaunched) urban commercial passenger transportation service — the latest model is its two-passenger VoloCity announced earlier this summer — has closed €50 million ($55 million) in funding led by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., Ltd, the Chinese automotive company that owns Volvo, Lotus and a number of other car brands. There are also plans for another significant tranche of money underway, likely to be closed later this year.
In this latest round, a Series C that brings the total raised to €85 million, Geely is investing alongside Daimler — the German car giant that owns Mercedes and a number of other brands — and other unnamed new and existing investors in the Bruchsal, Germany-based company. Previous backers in addition to Daimler include Intel, btov Partners and Team Europe, among others.
Valuation is not being disclosed but Rene Griemens, Volocopter’s CFO, confirmed that the stake is under half of the €50 million and gives Geely a share of about 10 percent in the company, similar to that of other big co-investors, with co-founders Alexander Zosel and Stephan Wolf continuing to hold a majority of the company. Doing the math, it would imply a valuation of between €200 million and €250 million for the startup.
Griemens also said in an interview that the German company intends to use the funding to continue working on its taxi R&D; meeting safety and other regulatory requirements for its small taxi vessels (which seat two); working other upcoming models such as those that can transport cargo; and business development around commercial launches.
Indeed, part of this latest investment is paving the way for future business: Geely and Volocopter will be working on a joint venture to bring the Volocopter and its “Urban Air Mobility” concept to China.
While there is no commercial airtaxi or other “flying car” services in existence today in any urban area, the market for hopefuls is a crowded one, with the likes of Lilium, Kitty Hawk, eHang, Uber, and many others building completely new styles of aircraft and hoping to play a role in offering short-range flights as an affordable alternative to road-based transportation. (Blade, an airtaxi service of sorts, is offering more conventional helicopters and other vessels in its limited launch for executives.)
“Urban mobility needs to evolve in the next few years to meet rising demand,” said Florian Reuter, CEO of Volocopter, in a statement. “With our Volocopter air taxis, we are adding a whole new level of mobility in the skies.”
Among its many potential competitors, Volocopter has been one of the more prolific when it comes to building and testing its drone-like vehicles, most recently in Helsinki where it became the first autonomous VTOL — vertical take-off and landing — aircraft to operate in the same airspace as other commercial aircraft.
You might also recall when Intel brought the Volocopter on stage at CES in Las Vegas in 2018 for a flight demonstration during its keynote, still the only time the Volocopter has been airborne in the US. Griemens said the company was less focused on the US as a target market, in part because it didn’t look like regulations for autonomous (or semi-autonomous) VTOL craft would be resolved any time soon.
Details on how Volocopter’s service would operate are still — pardon the expression — up in the air, but Griemens said that while Volocopter would own the aircraft, it would likely partner with local operators to help run the service. Similarly, the initial running of these autonomous craft would almost certainly involve “drivers” (the company says operating them is significantly less difficult than piloting other conventional aircraft) who are partially assisting and monitoring the autonomous operation.
The overall price of each aircraft, meanwhile, would likely be one-fifth to one-quarter of the price since the cost of operating it ultimately would be significantly lower and the initial hardware cost would be, too. While initial rides would be more expensive, after five to 10 years, the company estimates that the price would come down to the cost of a taxi ride on the ground.
“The goal was always to democratize flying,” he said.
Its first launch markets are likely to be Singapore, Dubai — where it has a partnership with the city — and an unspecified large European city. That could be somewhere in its home market of Germany, or Helsinki, but just as equally London, where the company has been engaging with city officials on what an airtaxi service could look like. (It’s also part of a new experimental ‘sandbox’ launched by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority to test out technology related to air-based transportation and travel.)
But even with regulatory frameworks in place, delays can come in many forms. This isn’t even the first time that Volocopter has predicted commercial services in “two to three years.”
Nevertheless, startups like Volocopter represent a credible version of the future of transportation, so for companies like Geely, Daimler and Intel, which still have large legacy businesses, investing in and working with Volocopter gives them a shot at playing a key role (and having a financial stake) in that market.
“Geely is transitioning from being an automotive manufacturer to a mobility technology group, investing in and developing a wide range of next-generation technologies,” said Li Shufu, Geely’s chairman, in a statement. “Our joint venture with Volocopter underlines our confidence in Volocopter air taxis as the next ambitious step in our wider expansion in both electrification and new mobility services.”
Geely, as it happens, also has around a 10 percent stake in Daimler and works with the Volcopter co-investor on other partnerships. Daimler has been a prolific investor in next-generation transportation services and is building a ride-sharing service with Geely in China.
Updated with more accurate detail of the cost of a Volocopter model compared to a helicopter.