Two fatal crashes in the past six months, which together killed 346 people, have forced all Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft out of the sky, as the airplane maker and regulators around the world seek the causes of the accidents and changes to prevent future crashes. But fallout from the accidents could also inflict some collateral damage: slowing the development of future aircraft, including nascent “air taxis,” which technically don’t exist yet.
In part, that’s because many of the companies developing electric, vertical-lift aircraft for urban air mobility were counting on a streamlined certification process for small aircraft that industry players and the Federal Aviation Administration have been working toward for a decade. That would have sped approvals for a slew of novel technologies necessary for the new class of aircraft, including tilting wings and propellers, electric propulsion, battery power, new aerodynamic configurations, and complex software to manage the tricky aircraft. Companies including Google’s Kitty Hawk, Lilium, Joby, Beta Technologies, Bell, Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, and Airbus’s Vahana have been aggressively pursuing approaches to making passenger transport from, say, urban rooftops to suburban front lawns practical, efficient, and safe.
Now, in the wake of the dual MAX 8 crashes, the FAA could be far less eager to sign off on new technologies, agency watchers say. The FAA is under fire for allowing Boeing to analyze the new 737 model’s safety itself without adequate oversight, according to a report in The Seattle Times.
The administration is already indicating it wants to dial back the procedures in question, which could spark far-reaching changes. “There are worries about delays to all aircraft certification programs,” says Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia. He notes that acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell recently told Congress that the agency anticipates a need for more oversight of the industry, but may not have the funds to provide it. “Elwell made this very clear in his testimony, but I’m not sure anyone listened. Short of trying to educate Congress, there’s not a lot that can be done,” Aboulafia says.
The issue is particularly acute for proposed “flying cars,” or air taxis—known as eVTOLs, for electric vertical takeoff and landing. As envisioned by their designers, the aircraft will rely on complex control systems with lots of automation and fly-by-wire technology. A new automated control system designed to keep the 737 MAX 8 level in flight is suspected as a cause in the two fatal crashes.
“The 737 MAX event is going to put a laser-beam focus on the certification of automated systems, and even without this focus, the FAA is well aware it has no idea how to certify autonomy,” says Missy Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory. “My sense is that [the air taxi industry has] generally been overly optimistic, and I think most of them do not really get the 737 MAX/eVTOL connection.”
With this heightened sensitivity to vetting new aircraft systems and ensuring their redundancy and safety, it could now take the more radical designs far longer to reach certification. Most of the companies have been targeting test flights of their full-size aircraft by 2020; Uber anticipates debuting air taxi service as soon as 2023. A slower FAA approval process could mean delays of years, or prompt companies to revise their technology strategies.
Such technologies as tilting wings or rotors—both of which would direct thrust downward for hovering and vertical takeoffs and landings—and variable-pitch propellers will likely take longer to obtain FAA certification. What might have been a five-year approval process for any individual component or system could now be 10 years, said one eVTOL startup head. So the simpler and more familiar these companies can make their technology, the better. This could mean using more established technology like fixed wings for augmenting lift and rotors that also stay in fixed positions, with the geometry of the aircraft itself enabling them to efficiently manage both forward and vertical flight. Cummings says certifying battery-powered aircraft will also prove significant, not to mention the challenges of full autonomy, which will eventually be needed for the services to be available in significant numbers.
In a statement, the FAA said it expects reviews of eVTOLs to proceed as planned. “The regulatory framework to certify eVTOL aircraft is in place now,” the agency said. “For any technology we have not anticipated, we have regulatory tools to assist the introduction of that technology on a project by project basis regardless of the aircraft’s configuration.”
One industry executive who works in aircraft certification said he expects the FAA to continue working with the industry toward approving the innovative designs. Nevertheless, there’s still much uncertainty given that the root causes of both accidents have not yet been determined. So while the accidents may not stop the air-taxi effort, they could still prove a major kink just as that innovation-dependent industry is getting off the ground.