The sky is indeed the limit for superapp aspirant and ride-hailing giant Grab.
The Singapore-based startup is partnering with German air mobility startup Volocopter to explore the economic and social feasibility of operating air taxis in Southeast Asia.
Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter looks forward to the “commercialization of Urban Air Mobility in one of the most traffic congested regions of the world” during his signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Grab.
Founded in 2011 by Stephan Wolf and Alexander Zosel, the German group counts Geely, Daimler, and Intel among its list of investors and has raised up to EUR 85 million to date.
One of the earliest startups to explore urban air mobility, Volocopter demonstrated the same year that electrically powered two-person vertical flight is possible and safe for the transporting of humans.
It currently employs more than 150 people across its three global offices in Germany and Singapore.
The Singapore office was set up two years ago as part of Volocopter’s bid to pioneer point-to-point urban air commuting in the ASEAN region.
In fact, the German group has been working closely with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to run test flights in the Marina Bay area.
As one of the most exciting unicorns in Southeast Asia, Grab is pulling out all stops to be everybody’s go-to app for rides, food, payments, delivery, financial services, and possibly on-demand air taxi services in the near future.
Chris Yeo, head of Grab’s strategic venture arm, sees the partnership as another means of widening Grab’s product offering for the future so that Southeast Asian commuters can “decide on their preferred journey option based on their budgets, time constraints and other needs, in a seamless way”.
“As a superapp that operates across 339 cities in Southeast Asia, Grab has gathered traffic patterns and customer insights in the region that can help our teams come up with the most innovative mobility solutions to plug the gaps in the transport landscape,” he further adds.
For a region infamous for its densely populated cities and unforgiving traffic, Southeast Asia will benefit from having on-demand air taxi services.
Indeed, inadequate road capacity, aging infrastructure, or poorly integrated public transportation plague millions of commuters daily in sprawling metropolises the likes of Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, and Bangkok.
It will however, also take more than a Volocopter-Grab partnership to launch and commercialise urban air mobility.
Safety is an obvious concern. Kitty Hawk – flying car venture funded by Google co-founder Larry Page – has been beset with frequent breakdowns and battery fires.
Taking flying taxis to the masses could also be tall order for now.
Uber is testing vertical takeoff and landing vehicles as part of its aerial ride-sharing venture uberAir, but estimates a cost of US$5.73 per passenger mile. By contrast, conventional car ownership in the United States costs between US$0.464 to US$0.608.
Hence, it is more likely than not that air taxis would begin or remain an urban upper-class luxury for at least the first few years.
Moreover, the local ecosystem – both physical and regulatory – in each Southeast Asian country will need to play catch up with Grab-Volocopter’s expansion plans.
This is also why Volocopter is also working with leading partners in infrastructure, operations, and air traffic management to build up the local air taxi infrastructure.
It remains to be seen how this partnership between two equally ambitious startups will take off in Southeast Asia. If deployed successfully, the duo will indeed have first mover advantage in shaping daily travel and commute patterns in key cities around the region.
Passengers will be flown from one Voloport to another when the company begins commercial flights in 2022 with the aim of handling up to 10,000 riders per day in Singapore by 2035. Photo taken by Nikolay Kazakov for Volocopter.