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California-based eVTOL company Joby Aviation has announced a promising partnership with the largest parking garage operator in the USA, with a view to developing takeoff and landing sites for its all-electric aerial rideshare service, currently in development and expected to launch in 2024.

Through its new partnership with REEF Technology, Joby, which is eyeing Europe and Asia as potential early markets as well as North America, will gain access to an immense range of rooftop locations across all key metropolitan areas in the United States, as well as an opportunity to acquire and develop new mobility hubs. To begin with, they’ll be concentrating on Los Angeles, Miami, and the New York and San Francisco Bay Area metropolitan areas, but there is clearly scope for rapid expansion.

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REEF is a startup managing urban spaces, particularly parking garages, and through proprietary technology turning them into neighbourhood hubs. They in turn have launched a $300 million infrastructure fund in partnership with Oaktree Capital Management LP, the Neighborhood Property Group, to purchase real estate assets, potentially filling in the gaps in Joby’s existing network.

A landmark deal

JoeBen Bevirt, founder and CEO at Joby Aviation, hailed “a landmark deal on Joby’s path to building a transformational ridesharing service in our skies,” adding that “NPG and REEF have an unbeatable network of sites across the US and we’re excited to be working with them to identify sites that will become the backbone of our future service. Parking structures are ideal locations for us as they allow us to deliver our customers as close to teir destination as possible, while minimising any local impact and reducing the need for building new infrastructure.”

The plan is for Joby to secure long-term leases on promising downtown sites within REEF and NPG’s network, from which to deliver its rideshare service, which will involve repurposing the top level of many parking garages into skyport infrastructure. Conveniently, these vast open-air spaces are often near-dormant anyway, and REEF has a tried-and-tested, forward-thinking approach that should fit neatly with Joby’s aspirations. Joby will also be tapping into a network of over 5,000 existing heliports and regional airports across the US, so this deal will give them unparalleled coverage.

The advantages of using parking garages as skyports are obvious. For one thing, they are typically situated close to popular city destinations. For another, they have more than enough space to host flight ops, charging facilities and customer logistics. Being solidly built already, they should need little to no structural reinforcement to support aircraft. And perhaps most importantly of all, with their central locations they can support seamless connectivity to public transit and parking.

On this last point, Joby already has a significant advantage. In December 2020, it announced the acquisition of Uber Elevate, which will enable them to integrate their services into each other’s apps. So in theory an Uber hire would deliver passengers to the skyport in time for their flight and, where necessary, another hire can be waiting for them at their landing site to complete the journey.

The players

Joby was founded in 2009, and intends to offer a sustainable air passenger service, accessible via an app, that will result in fast, emissions-free and affordable journeys of between 5 and 150 miles in congested urban areas. It’s an answer to the prayers of anyone sick and tired of being held up in traffic.

The company’s pioneering aircraft uses six electric motors, can travel up to 150 miles on a single charge, and can carry a pilot and four passengers at speeds of up to 200mph. Crucially, Joby estimates that it is up to 100x quieter than a helicopter, which will go some way to dissuading concerns about noise. Needless to say, it will also be far less expensive than hiring a conventional chopper.

REEF Technology boasts more than 5,000 sites across North America and Europe, with a mission to transform underutilised parking garages into multi-use mobility hubs. Think neighbourhood kitchens, rooftop restaurants, vertical farms, events and hospitality, healthcare, e-commerce. They see an opportunity in the fact that in the United States around 50-60 percent of downtown real estate is used for cars, but could be used for much more besides.

Philippe Saint-Just, co-founder of REEF, said: “With our focus on transforming urban spaces into community hubs that enable the future of mobility, aerial ridesharing is a compelling opportunity for us to decarbonise travel and make better use of structures such as parking garages.”

Incoming turbulence

There’s no getting around the fact that urban air taxi operators such as Joby face significant hurdles to their expansion. The logistics involved in charging their aircraft at these hubs will require substantial investment, however with the rise of electric cars, the infrastructure is growing.

The biggest challenge, naturally, is the fact that flying eVTOLs over densely populated urban areas is controversial from a public safety perspective. Aviation authorities are likely to take a very cautious approach to regulation. But here again Joby is ahead of the game. It has a former FAA acting administrator on the board, and is working closely with the authority on certification. They have a superb, quiet, aircraft that has already been test-flown thousands of times, and a shrewd acquisition in Uber Elevate.

NASA has estimated the potential urban air mobility market has a value of up to $500 billion, in the US alone. Whatever challenges lie in wait, we can say with confidence that there are operators out there ready to take them on, if the prize is to tap into a market of that size. Even with this Joby / REEF partnership we’re talking baby steps, but nevertheless the vision of air taxis zipping across the urban skyline is getting closer.

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