The Need for Carbon Fiber Could Ground the Flying Car Future

WIRED | 1/29/2019 | Eric Adams
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In the A5, Icon Aircraft has produced an airplane that handles easily, resists dangerous spins, and treats its pilots and passengers to an open, airy cockpit. What the small company hasn’t produced, however, is very many of the bright white two-seaters: About 65 since 2014, with each selling now for nearly $400,000.

Icon’s struggle to ramp up production of an airplane it initially promised for $139,000 can be blamed mostly on its heavy use of carbon fiber—a material that cuts weight and adds strength, but also adds complexity and cost to the manufacturing process. And while the Vacaville, California-based company has done much to course-correct, its struggle to produce a new kind of aircraft should serve as a warning to the flying flotilla of outfits racing to fill the skies with air taxis.

Lift - Machines - Rotors - Wings - Body

These electric vertical lift machines, most using multiple rotors and lift-generating wings along with novel new body types, promise rooftop-to-front-lawn commuting and quick crosstown hops within a decade. But if the industry veterans leading Icon, making a fairly conventional winged aircraft, can’t find their footing after a similar stretch of time, what chances do the roughly 130 companies developing a radical new aircraft type for a radical new service actually have?

On a track studded with hurdles like certification, funding, and logistics, the matter of production might be easy to ignore. But it’s a vital one, given that most of these companies plan to operate their aircraft as fleets of flying cabs. If there aren’t thousands of these eVTOLs ready to start ferrying passengers about in relatively short order from the service’s launch, the effort could enter a death spiral before you can shout “taxi!” into the sky. A 2018 study by Porsche Consulting projected a market demand for 23,000 eVTOL aircraft by 2035, in a $32 billion passenger market.

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