February 2022
The power of eVTOLs: Implications on the ground as we take to the skies
<a href="https://sundbergferar.com/author/lauren-burger/" target="_self">Lauren Burger</a>
Lauren Burger

Senior Design Researcher

Lynnaea Haggard
Lynnaea Haggard

Marketing Manager

The power of eVTOLs: Implications on the ground as we take to the skies

For anyone who follows mobility trends, you’ve likely seen a lot of buzz about electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles. While the idea of flying cars might still seem like a thing from the movies, this emerging technology is upon us, with more than 150 companies already developing air taxi projects [1], and an estimated global market size of $8.5 billion in 2021.[2]

 

As innovators race to create the ideal eVTOL vehicles, design the supporting infrastructure, and overcome regulatory hurdles, there is an underlying conversation that impacts the entire innovation process –ensuring that social and environmental impacts of the industry are not overlooked in the rush to get a product to market.

If successfully done “right,” eVTOLs could…

  • Provide new levels of convenience and time-savings never before seen in mobility
  • Help people access places of work, education, and even leisure that may have previously been unattainable, thereby enhancing communities and strengthening social structures for future generations
  • Help move cargo – especially extremely time-sensitive items – in a more unencumbered way than any road or highway currently allows
  • And they could help reduce emissions and congestion that plague our most populous cities, freeing up streets from the infrastructure and maintenance required for ground transit to be used in other, more community-friendly ways

Fulfilling all these outcomes might seem like a long shot to skeptics of the category, and to be sure it is no small task. On the other hand, if we take our eyes off these ideal outcomes promised by so many incumbents, or prioritize profits alone over consequences of this technology for future generations, society, and the planet, we could end up with a technology that takes a massive amount of electricity to move a relatively small amount of people and cargo, that only the wealthiest can take advantage of, and that ends up polluting our communities in drastic and unprecedented ways.

In this two-part series, we’ll take a look at eVTOLs through the lens of both social and environmental viability – including how companies in the space can understand and assess their potential impacts, as well as strategies they can consider to mitigate negative effects while at the same time increasing positive outcomes.

 

Shaping the social impact of eVTOL

To start, we want to put on a lens to understand the social impacts of eVTOLs – by this we mean understanding some of the potential impacts of this innovation on people and communities, across the entire lifecycle. This includes both the “pre-launch” design and production phase, as well as the “post-launch” phase once eVTOLS are ready to take to the skies.

Pre-Launch: eVTOL Design, Material Procurement, Production, and Transport

Before eVTOLs even hit the market and are in the skies around us, there are several social considerations that companies face. Some of the more apparent considerations are social factors within the companies bringing this technology to life, as well as within the partners they choose to do business with – which could include everything from material sourcing, manufacturing services, transportation services, and any other partners along the way. 

These considerations take the form of…

  • Fair labor practices
  • Committing to the health and safety of employees
  • Promoting equity and diversity of employees
  • Respecting and supporting the rights of the communities in which the company operates, and not being complicit to social abuses they may see happening

Taking these sorts of actions will help set up the industry at its very root to make positive social contributions that support the health and longevity of not only the company itself, but all those around it.

Product Design Strategy and Purposeful Context of use

Going beyond the operating principles of the company, is the design strategy itself and ensuring we’re designing for a purposeful context of use. This means taking into account all potential stakeholders for our target use case(s) – from pilots and riders, to those who will be responsible for charging and garaging eVTOLs, to the maintenance technicians who will be ensuring its peak performance and longevity.

Some potential considerations include designing for the diversity that may exist within your target audience.  For example, if your goal is to fill the role of eVTOLs as a regional passenger transportation service , it will be important to ensure people who would use this type of service – such as professionals commuting daily between regional offices, or families traveling to regional destinations for a weekend getaway – are considered in the design.

Beyond those directly using or piloting eVTOLs are all of the individuals who interact with the vehicle and its associated infrastructure in less direct ways – including those who perform maintenance and repairs. To extend this technology’s lifespan, it will be important to provide these individuals easy maintenance access and allow for procedures that are safe and non-harmful to the technicians that will be performing them.

A concrete example of designing for all stakeholders is when a local Detroit non-profit came to Sundberg-Ferar for help in designing a community park. To make it a delightful and safe experience for many different kinds of users, Sundberg-Ferar helped the non-profit research members of the community and the needs and desires of everyone who would be involved in using the park. We then implemented these findings to design a park experience that would fulfill priority needs for each stakeholder group. Stakeholders in this case included youth in both traditional and non-traditional families, wealthy and at-risk, guardians like parents, siblings, and grandparents, or bus drivers who would provide transportation to and from the park, community leadership and legislators, park staff, security guards etc. All this made for a very complicated equation, but when it comes to such a large undertaking as a community park, or a new form of regional transportation, the importance of such efforts simply can’t be overstated to ensure success.

Post-Launch – Use Cases and End of Life

Once the use-case has been defined and the ideal eVTOL is designed, built, and ready to hit the airways, we cross into an entirely different set of possible impacts and considerations. As we think about potential use cases for eVTOLs, many have the opportunity to promote social sustainability.

For example, we know that – despite a slow-down during the pandemic – the general trend is still for societies to be moving toward more urban living. Applying eVTOLs into these dense urban environments may help alleviate several stressors on society, and make these communities more sustainable in the long-run. To achieve this, eVTOLs will need to be capable of carrying a large number of people or cargo items quickly to their destinations on a regular basis. This in turn could reduce congestion on the ground, and allow communities to use their increasingly scarce spaces for purposes that enrich the health and well-being of all those who live there, such as bringing in more parks and natural areas or community centers.

Another highly anticipated use case for eVTOLs is in public service efforts – such as emergency response, or medical transport.[3] Again the goal would be to get users – in this case first responders, doctors, or potentially even medical supplies – to their destination more quickly than is currently possible through ground transport. This could drastically improve society, as fast response times in these types of situations are critical to positive outcomes.

When faced with so many potential use cases worth pursuing, it can be overwhelming to make decisions of where to focus development efforts. You want to have confidence that the direction you choose will occupy a market gap, drive business growth and fulfill user needs, but how do you get that confidence? Sundberg-Ferar has helped dozens of clients obtain this confidence by exploring and identify the most ripe pathways of innovation for new technologies, using a research-driven, and collaborative approach.

One example of this was when Hyundai’s venture group wanted to create a show-stopping halo product embodying their innovative spirit, and future vision of mobility for everyone. With this in mind, they came to Sundberg-Ferar with the question “what if cars could walk”, and the SF team used, through in-depth research, collaborative workshops, and design synthesis, helped Hyundai flesh out multiple use-cases where there was a proven market need for such a technology. Not only that, but the SF team took it a step further in creating several conceptual directions for a car that could walk, leading eventually to a proof-of-concept walking robot on wheels, and a subsequent unmanned walking vehicle concept.

Determining eVTOL infrastructure, experience, and ecosystem

Beyond the way in which eVTOLs will be used is infrastructure that’s needed for their operation (aka “vertiports”), and considerations around these ports. Although it will vary by use case, companies and communities will need to strategize about what these ports should look like – both physically and functionally. To truly be sustainable, they will need to take into account who will be using the ports, at what times of day, what they’ll be using the ports for, and any secondary functions the ports will need to support.

There will likely be many different types of people passing through any given port each day, and only a fraction of them will be riders or pilots – the rest may be maintenance technicians, eVTOL traffic controllers, or even operational or custodial staff for the vertiport. Although being a transportation hub may be the driving reason behind the existence of these vertiports, there are often secondary functions hubs like this support – such vendors that provide snacks or coffee to employees and riders on the run, or spaces that allow riders to sit down and socialize while waiting for the evening flight home. In short, it will be important to strategize all of the ideal experiences to ensure a transportation hub that is embraced by the community into the future.

Just as important as the functionality of the vertiports is where they will be located. Will it be equitable? Will it be easily accessible? What impacts will it have on the surrounding community?

Research has consistently shown that access to reliable transportation and short commute times are key to increasing upward economic mobility.[4] That access allows people to have more choice in the neighborhoods they want to live and raise their families in, the types of jobs they can realistically work at, their reliability and attendance at work, and a host of other advantages like access to health services and food options. Just imagine the benefits that could come from having access to a transit option right around the corner from where you live that allows riders to quickly and reliably travel in urban areas without ever getting bogged down by rush-hour gridlock! Which will be the lucky neighborhoods to get these vertiports? How will that impact the community and home prices around it? How will vertiports integrate with other public transit options that already exist in the neighborhood?

However, there are also potential downsides that could come with having a vertiport in your backyard. This might range from low flight altitudes, to noise created by the eVTOLs and general vertiport operations, to even fire safety concerns[5] that come with battery-powered electric vehicles. These vertiport areas will also require a significant footprint in order make a notable contribution to public transportation and urban mobility.[6] When considering that each port must have multiple take-off and landing pads, charging bays, the infrastructure to provide tickets and a waiting area to riders, and so on, this adds up to significant land requirement.

As companies plan for this infrastructure, they will need to take into account the impact it will have on the surrounding community and future generations. Beyond this, to build trust and relationships, those companies and communities will need to communicate to the public and those affected about what to expect from the technology, how it can be accessed, and why the technology is being implemented in the way it is.

 

When you’re unsure of your next strategic step

All of the ideals are easy to put down on paper, but the realities of creating a unique, socially & environmentally viable experience for all stakeholders within the ambiguity of the eVTOL ecosystem can be a minefield – even for the most experienced intra/entrepreneur.

If you’re unsure of your next strategic step for your eVTOL experience or product, please drop us a note! We have many strategy and design sprints, workshops, and offerings for all appetites that can help you clarify the way forward, get unstuck, and stage your company for long-game success.

Reach out now at hello@sundbergferar.com

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The power of eVTOLs: Implications on the ground as we take to the skies

Author

Lauren Burger

Senior Design Researcher

With a background emphasizing the importance of combining both human desirability with engineering feasibility in design, Lauren has a deep passion for understanding the needs of people and how they translate to a business growth strategy. She spent her early career growing and running her own small business, including managing new product innovation, instituting a multi-channel retail approach, and developing all marketing and PR communications. From there, she spent the next several years expanding her consumer research and business strategy skills at Gongos, Inc., where she specialized in bringing a human-centric approach to knowledge synthesis, trends, and innovation projects.

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