In corners of the Detroit Auto Show where luxury brand vehicles once preened on lush carpet, those high-priced four-wheelers have been replaced by new winged machines aimed at taking mobility high above the roads where cars and trucks travel.
There’s a little orange two-seater that takes off and lands vertically, another compact two-seat plane that doesn’t require a full pilot’s license and a large vertical takeoff and landing craft that can act as anything from an air taxi to ambulance.
It’s further evidence of the evolution of what was once one of the biggest and most prestigious international autos shows where dozens of automakers came to unveil important and revolutionary new models and concept vehicles.
But the combination of the Covid-19 pandemic caused what’s formally known as the North American International Detroit Auto Show to take a three year break and automakers’ ability to skip the expensive product reveals in favor of product introductions conducted online or during the year at less expensive venues.
The result? Many fewer automakers showing their wares at the auto show, leaving space for other ways to get around. In this case, the companies involved in the fast-growing air mobility industry.
Detroit-based Airspace Experience Technologies, or ASX, has a swath of floor, and air space nestled next to Earth-bound Subaru, where it’s showing its electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, or eVTOL that’s a sort of Swiss Army Knife that can be fitted with a variety of modules for different purposes while solving an age-old urban problem.
“We can move medivac, cargo, passengers, between cities, airports and suburbs using clean, quiet and connected air mobility systems,” said Jon Riminelli, CEO and co-found of ASX. “Effectively what we’ve done is we’ve taken currently available electric vehicle technologies, motors, controllers, batteries and employed them on essentially a proof of concept aircraft, technology demonstrator if you will to sort of lighten the load on the road. Congestion from traffic on the road is getting unbearable in many urban centers around the world and we have to do something.”
Across the floor two small but very different aircraft sit side-by-side from Israel-based Air and Icon, based in Vacaville, Calif. What they have in common, though, is opening the skies to anyone who wants the same pleasure as a driver who enjoys a ride just for the fun of it.
Indeed, Icon Senior Director for Global Sales and Service, Noah Collins, says when the company was founded about a decade ago, that was its main purpose, telling Forbes.com, “The mission was to democratize personal flight and 3D mobility by building a consumer-friendly, safe, technologically advanced aircraft to open up adventure flying.”
To do that Icon created what it calls a “sport plane” that’s light, thanks to its carbon construction, can fold up small enough to fit in a trailer, takeoff and land on ground or water and most importantly, does not require a full pilot’s license to operate it. The plane also operates on both aviation fuel and the same petrol auto drivers pump into their vehicles.
Icon is due to deliver its 161st plane next week to a customer in Connecticut. Orders are taken online but don’t expect delivery until around June, 2023. How much? The base model is $379,000, and upgraded version costs $404,000. A special livery, or paint job will set you back an extra $15,000.
Next door at Air, the little bright orange aircraft is a different animal. It’s two-seat eVTOL that CEO and co-founder Rani Plaut says improves on similar planes because it’s less complicated. Most aircraft that operate with moti-rotors require one system for lift and another for forward motion. The Air plane uses just one system for both.
The electric two-seater can fly 60-100 miles according to Plaut.
Like Icon’s aircraft, Air’s won’t require a full pilot’s license and Plaut asserts its computerized system actually makes it about as easy to fly as it is to drive a car.
“A driver can be anybody. A driver is a dude with a car, a pilot is a highly skilled individual. This solves it because you are flying a computerized vehicle which takes care of most of the emergencies and most of the problems. So you’re flying in an envelope of software that keeps you out of trouble. Keeps the thing stable. It’s like ride and very, very, very trained horse,” said Plaut
The company has taken orders for 220 planes, 160 of which from U.S. Customers but they’ll all have to wait to take one home until around 2024 when Plaut expects the aircraft to earn certification.
Sure it’s different for an auto show, but this auto show is a different animal, even extending its footprint to the streets of Detroit where show goers can take test drives and gawk at a 61-foot inflatable duck. It’s a Jeep thing.
ASX’s Jon Riminelli appreciates the opportunity to show off his company’s aircraft and capabilities to a home town crowd but also thinks the Detroit Auto Dealers Association which organizes the show, are doing the right thing, saying, “People want to experience the ride and drive, pretty soon you’ll be able to ride and fly. It’s a chance to show people what’s coming.”
Icon’s Noah Collins says it’s “exciting to see where the future lies.”
We’ll leave the last, pithy, word to Air’s Rani Plaut who declared, “At the end of the day transportation is immersive into our life and it shouldn’t be displayed like in an aquarium. The auto industry took off its tie and put on a t-shirt.”