On December 28, 2023, 16 rotors lifted vertically into the air, travelled over Guangzhou and Hefei, and completed the first unmanned commercial passenger flight.
For EHang, its EH216-S two-passenger eVTOL aircraft—the first to receive a Standard Airworthiness Certificate from China’s Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC)—had finally proven its mettle.
So, does this mark the dawn of a new age of autonomous aerial transport? Well, it marks the dawn, but the midday sun is years away.
GlobalData predicts that a global marketplace for electronic vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft will be established by 2030 but will only be competitive and accessible by 2035.
2024 will see interplanetary developments in the eVTOL sector, with NASA commissioning solar-powered eVTOLs for the exploration of Mars.
Back on Earth, EHang has inaugurated the first European Air Mobility (UAM) center in Spain. This is effectively the first eVTOL airport and EHang has extended operations to the UAE with the sale of 100 flying vehicles.
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But these success stories in the sector only tell part of the story. EHang may well be leading the sector in successful commercial flights, but it is also leading the sector in class action lawsuits.
Multiple heavyweight law firms are heading class action cases, alleging that EHang “made misleading statements and failed to disclose” key information that would have been sensitive to the share price. The case particularly cites partnerships abandoned by “United Therapeutics, DHL, and Vodafone” and notes that companies who had placed pre-orders for EHang aircraft were “almost certainly not in a financial position to be able to afford their orders”.
This appears as a damning indictment of EHang and emerges only weeks after the first successful flight of the EH216-S. EHang’s share price has continued to decline from its all-time high in 2021 of $124, and current trading in January 2024 sees it standing at $12.60, a destruction of nearly 90% of shareholder value.
One might say, why all this hype? Is this not just an electric helicopter?
No, it does have distinct differences. Notably, it emits much less noise pollution and can operate autonomously. The advancement of this technology will not just disrupt the helicopter market, but also the private jet and taxi markets.
However, personal automobiles may well be complemented by the widespread adoption of eVTOLs. For those who fear flying, get ready. Soon there won’t even be a pilot.