Toyota has thrown its financial weight behind a flying taxi start-up that aims to launch services as soon as 2023, leading a $590m funding round for California-based Joby Aviation.
The Japanese carmaker is putting $394m into the company while some previous investors, including the venture capital arms of Intel and JetBlue, enlarged their bets.
The new funding takes the total Joby has raised to $720m, according to a person familiar with the deals, who claimed it as the “most well-funded air taxi company” to date.
Volocopter, a German rival backed by Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler, has raised €81m and hopes to launch commercial services in Singapore by 2022. Lilium, based in Munich, has attracted $101m and said it hopes for a “meaningful” market launch in 2025.
JoeBen Bevirt, Joby’s chief executive, said on Wednesday that the collaboration with Toyota “represents an unprecedented commitment of money and resources for us and this new industry from one of the world’s leading automakers”.
Shigeki Tomoyama, executive vice-president of Toyota, will join Joby’s board of directors.
Founded in 2009, Joby claims its four-passenger electric aircraft, which can take off and land vertically like the Osprey planes used by US Marines, will be able to travel up to 200 miles an hour for a range of more than 150 miles, although its current prototype does not yet meet those specifications. Its manufacturing base is in Marina, California, just south of Santa Cruz.
Executive chairman Paul Sciarra, an entrepreneur who co-founded Pinterest in 2009, said Toyota would help Joby scale up manufacturing and help with quality and cost controls. The company’s prototypes have been made in-house with lighter materials than are typically used in aerospace.
“It’s like the early days of electric vehicles on the ground,” Mr Sciarra said. “There are not many companies to go for the components.”
Daniel Elwell, former acting chief of the Federal Aviation Administration, the US regulator, said at a flying taxi conference in June that the technologies were “some of the most exciting innovations and developments in aerospace since the Wright brothers”.
But he cautioned that the FAA would not be a pushover in approving the vehicles until safety is ensured. “You see the ideal way of transporting people across cities,” he said. “I see car-sized vehicles with multiple rotors hanging over families out walking their dogs.”
Joby already has a multiyear agreement with Uber, which has agreed to provide “airspace management, skyport infrastructure and customer interfaces”, the company said.
When Uber, which has its own flying taxi division called Elevate, announced plans last week with Hyundai to jointly develop a flying taxi, they also targeted 2023 for commercial operations, with demonstrations beginning this year.
Where Joby will first launch has yet to be determined, said Mr Sciarra, adding that the company is talking to cities in and outside the US.