Advanced Air Mobility Interviews

An Interview with Tcab Tech

An Interview with Tcab Tech

Some have claimed that 2021 was the genesis of Chinese’s UAM era, what is TCab’s point of view?

2021 was indeed the genesis of Chinese UAM era. TCab announced a ten million USD round of financing in September 2021, followed by AutoFlight and XPeng HT Aero raising 100 million USD and 500 million USD, respectively. In 2020, most investors in Mainland China had not heard of the UAM industry – marked difference from the financial boom for the UAM industry in 2021. The main reason was that Joby, Lilium and Archer were listed in the United States under Special-purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC), which led to more attention being paid to UAM by investment institutions in Mainland China. Regarding the core technologies, domestic development is indeed slower than the development in foreign countries. Since the domestic market has more information about UAM, more people started to learn about the UAM industry. Regarding the Chinese UAM industry, the market has a lot of skepticism. A valid concern would be whether the military’s control over Chinese airspace implies it will be difficult to commercialize UAM in the future. The opening of the provincial airspace in Hunan, Jiangxi, and Anhui in 2021 has undoubtedly brought great hope to the industry. All of the transformations above took place in 2021; thus, 2021 was the genesis of UAM development in China.

The development of UAM in China is still in its early stages at the present. The domestic market is not very competitive at the moment, but over time, the gap between companies will widen. At that point, the market can differentiate the plan of each company, such as whether the development plan is going to be commercial. The strength of each company will be obvious at this stage. Our team has plenty of experience regarding the aviation industry, which enhances our confidence in the UAM market, and we will continue to pour all our energy into it. Many people think 2021 was a trough for starting a business in Mainland China. Although it was a very difficult time, we still chose to establish the company during this time frame because we believe that we need to have a long-term perspective as an enterprise. We could take the Chinese market as the basis and continue to expand to markets such as Southeast Asia and Europe. UAM would be an industry filled with global competition in the future.

How long do you think it will take for manned autonomous eVTOLs to be commercially operational?

The formal commercial operation of manned autonomous aerial vehicles is divided into two stages.

The first stage might be letting autonomous manned vehicles to operate in a restricted range. The Chinese government is open-minded about automatic driving. In October 2021, the Civil Aviation Administration of China published the airworthiness certification, analysis of system security and registration management for civil autonomous vehicles. This may be the reason why the policies formation would be faster in China than in other countries. The risk of allowing certified autonomous aerial vehicle operating in small-scale closed environments is comparably manageable which would also be an ice-breaking decision.

The second stage would be letting autonomous manned vehicles to operate in a full range which would not be until 2028 or 2029. This is not only an issue of airspace integration between autonomous and piloted aerial vehicles but more about the upgrade of domestic airspace management systems. Autonomous technology for eVTOL is still immature at this stage. It is a black box. Whether autonomous driving is safer than an experienced driver or pilot, or whether it brings unexpected problems, needs further examination. Large-scale commercialization of autonomous manned vehicles should be built on top of the extensive use of manned eVTOL, mature intelligence sensor technology and the satisfaction of airworthiness standards. This should also be a safer route to commercialization.

How do you perceive the demand of the Chinese market? How is it different from Europe and North America?

The Chinese market is completely different than the European and North American markets. Europe is an area with high urban density, whereas North America is scattered. China, on the other hand, has urban clusters that are linked together. Since the environments in China, Europe, and North America are different, their needs are also different. Therefore, the development of eVTOL market in China cannot simply copy the development situation in other markets. The Chinese market has its unique characteristics: a large population, an ample market potential, and is well known for its high-speed rail and infrastructure development. All these macro conditions are elements we need to consider.

As for the application of eVTOL, the market in China should be centered around providing a solution for fast travel within or between megacities. Taking the trip from Shanghai to Suzhou for example, passengers would need to take the subway or a taxi first, then transfer to a high-speed train to Suzhou as the traditional way to travel. The trip usually takes about an hour or two. Driving to Suzhou would require at least two hours as well. By using eVTOLs in the future, passengers will only need a five-minute taxi trip to a vertiport, from where they can take the eVTOL to Suzhou in about 18 minutes, followed by a taxi trip to their destination. The whole trip takes around 30 to 35 minutes, which saves three-quarters of travel time compared to traditional traveling methods. EVTOLs can truly promote the integration of Yangtze Delta, the coordinated development of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the integration of the Greater Bay Area.

The application of eVTOLs will vary according to the condition of different countries. eVTOLs will be a market between car and high-speed railway in China.

A distance between 20 to 30 kilometers would be the most comfortable traveling range right now, where a living range in the city is around 30 kilometers. For a trip between 200 kilometers to 500 kilometers, we would go for high-speed railway. What we need right now is a transportation tool that can provide a fast-traveling solution and eVTOLs could be the answer. Urban Air Mobility (UAM) will come to mind when we think of using eVTOLs to commute, yet it is not entirely constrained to trips within cities. Instead, we think a city-to-city scenario might take place first. Take Shanghai as an example, the use of eVTOLs in the vicinity of Lujiazui is relatively difficult compared to commuting from Suzhou to Songjiang district in Shanghai. There are some places in Shanghai, such as Dishui Lake and Chongming, currently lacking transportation alternatives that would be a great market for aerial mobility.

Here is our view on the price of eVTOL. High-speed rail costs around 1 yuan per minute. The target for us is to have a cost structure that charges 2 yuan per kilometer. The price of a transportation tool is usually determined by the production scale. If there are not enough eVTOLs, then the price will be high. EVTOL is a revolutionary innovation, it is purely electrical, and it uses vertical take-off and landing technology. It is expected that more than 1,000 vehicles will be built annually. This suggests that passengers would only need to pay 2 yuan per kilometer. If the government provides some subsidies for this, the price can be further reduced and the cost for each passenger would be cheaper than taking a taxi.

As for the eVTOL customer base, we think eVTOLs will not just be for the high-end market but will also be accessible to the general public. In the early stages of commercialization, although eVTOLs may be used more in the tourism market to replace some helicopters for sightseeing trips, the use of eVTOLs will fall somewhere between tourism and commuting.

TCab Tech is preparing to build China’s first vertiport, could you share some more information on that?

In our opinion, the development of UAM should not limited to the development of manufacturing the original equipment, but the development of an ecosystem. Besides the aerial vehicle, the ecosystem also includes vertiports, low-altitude weather projection, charging facilities and so on. Vertiports are essential infrastructure for a UAM ecosystem that can be divided into large and small terminals. Large terminals can be combined with high speed railway stations, bus stations and airports. Smaller stations will be built around communities or scenic areas. Vertiports are essential to UAM. The development of aerial vehicles requires the contribution and support of different strategic partners, as well as the participation and assistance from city construction and trading institutions. As for TCab Tech, we would definitely participate in the operation of vertiports and promote concepts related to eVTOL operations. We also hope to find the right partners to create such scenarios together. Since it is an enormous market, our company alone cannot get the job done which is why we need appropriate strategic partners to operate together.

The first eVTOL introduced by TCab – the E20, adopted a vectored thrust configuration, with six powertrains and five seats. What are the considerations for such design?

The technical direction of eVTOL OEMs in other countries is relatively consistent. Joby, Archer, Lilium and Vertical all adopted tilting, tilting bypass or tilting rotor configurations. Most people in the industry accredited this technical direction. Multi-rotor configurations on the other hand, have a disadvantage in flight range and duration. The lift and cruise configuration is more of an interim product than a finalized product. Many of our team members have worked on eVTOL composite wing design and are familiar with the configuration.

The problem with composite wings is that if the Type Certificate is acquired after three or four years, the eVTOL is one generation behind other products.

For example, vectored thrust eVTOLs can fly from Shanghai to Suzhou in 20 minutes, while the lift and cruise configuration vehicle takes 40 minutes with the same cost. This degrades customer experiences. Hence, we choose the vectored thrust configuration after balancing the consideration for technology, the market, and other aspects. In terms of the forensics of the three configurations, the tilting configuration is a bit more complex but the technical safety requirements for these three configurations are the same. We expect that the E20 will gain its type certificate by the end of 2024.

We positioned the E20 as a point-to-point product for air taxi services. If the number of seats is inadequate, it is difficult to cover the operational costs. The number of seats in the E20 is the same as the number of seats in a taxi – it can carry up to four passengers. The same wave of taxi passengers can travel together on the E20 to their next destination. This completes the travel scene for passengers. An ideal scenario in the future would be passengers can place an order for ground and aerial travel services on a one stop platform. We offer aerial services with a range of 30 to 150 kilometers to passengers while traditional taxi services offer ground travel that is less than 30 kilometers. When these two services are complementing each other, they can satisfy the different travelling needs that passengers have.

In terms of power systems, four rounds (four engines) are certainly not sufficient to ensure its safe performance. If one of the four rounds has malfunctions, the remaining three would have an imbalanced center of gravity. Thus, we should use six, eight, ten or 12 rounds. Six rounds are not only easier to implement, but more aesthetically pleasing and has competitive advantages in other aspects.

Could you share TCab’s plan in terms of airworthiness certification and product development?

As for airworthiness evidence of aircraft, we began to communicate with the Civil Aviation Administration of China from the first day that TCab Tech was established. Since we are a team with an aviation background, we emphasize the safety and airworthiness of the vehicle. From research and development to testing, our team poured a lot of energy into it and paid a great deal of attention to each stage. Besides that, airworthy certification is something we have always been focusing on. Many research and development personnel in our team have experienced the full airworthiness certification process. Last year, we signed the Partnership for Safety Plan (PSP) with the Civil Aviation Administration of China to ensure the relationship, working mode, and the principles when working together on the type certification.

As for the product line, TCab Tech will only focus on making one model at present and do not plan to go to the route of “first cargo, then manned” or “first multicopter, then lift and cruise”. We will focus on obtaining the airworthiness certification for the E20 model and making sure we do our best when making the E20, a model adopting a vectored thrust configuration. The application of the E20 will be divided into two directions. One is to serve the country. If the country needs emergency rescue or transportation of emergency supplies, we are willing to change the E20 into an emergency rescue product to serve the country. A second direction is some operated by us and some jointly operated with partners to put air taxi into service.