Here’s why you might not see those EHang air taxis outside China anytime soon
By Paul Brinkmann|October 23, 2023
Company sees China’s certification of the two-seater as a ‘crucial benchmark,’ but independent experts aren’t so sure
U.S. industry analysts don’t expect China’s air taxi developer EHang to take the world by storm the way Chinese consumer drones did, despite that company’s approval of a type certificate by Chinese regulators Oct. 13 for the autonomously controlled EH216-S aircraft designed to carry two passengers.
EHang said in a press release that the approval is “a crucial benchmark for the industry worldwide,” but analysts I spoke to predict the global impact of the regulatory approval will be limited. That’s because the EH216-S won’t likely be saleable in the U.S. or Europe anytime soon, due to a lack of understanding about Chinese aviation regulations.
That lack of understanding stems from several factors, such as a language barrier regarding complex regulations and a perceived lack of transparency at the Civil Aviation Administration of China, says Robin Riedel, partner with New York-based consulting firm McKinsey.
“There’s a lot of questions about, ‘Hey, what are the limitations on this aircraft? What are they actually allowed to do with it? Can they only fly tourists and only over water or unpopulated areas?’ And there are also questions about what safety standards were certified,” Riedel says.
The CAAC website shows an 87-page pdf, “Civil Aviation Law of the People’s Republic of China,” that describes some airworthiness standards, but Riedel says the global aviation industry is not sure exactly what that and other documents mean or how they are applied to aircraft certification.
The EH216-S is an electric vertical takeoff and landing, eVTOL, passenger vehicle that operates entirely by autonomous software and without a pilot aboard, although the aircraft is monitored from the ground.
EHang said the airworthiness and other attributes of the 16-rotor design have been “thoroughly and rigorously validated” in some 40,000 test flights. But the perceived lack of transparency has prevented Western regulators from honoring Chinese passenger aircraft certifications, and therefore prevents the sale of China-certificated passenger aircraft in the U.S. and other Western nations.
Riedel expects matters to play out something like the history of two passenger aircraft built by another Chinese aircraft company, Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China or COMAC, that have achieved certified in China and have yet to be introduced in Western nations: the ARJ21 regional jet and the C919 narrow body airliner.
In addition to the perceived lack of transparency regarding China regulations, there are no reciprocal agreements between the U.S. and China that would honor the type certificate for the EH216-S, unlike such agreements that the U.S. has with Europe, United Kingdom, Australia and other nations.
EHang hasn’t indicated any plan to sell aircraft in the U.S. or Europe, but the company has exhibited at the annual China Import and Export Fair, where Chinese companies often display products they intend to export. And, while export of such China-made aircraft may not be permitted to certain Western nations, China has close ties with nations including Pakistan, where its aviation regulatory approvals could be honored.
And, even if there were such reciprocal agreements, FAA regulations don’t spell out a path to type certify an autonomously controlled aircraft that would carry passengers, although companies like Boeing’s Wisk have pushed for such approvals to be allowed.
China captured a dominant position in the global small drone market by developing drones faster and at lower cost than the rest of the world, Riedel says, but nations consider passenger aircraft as a separate, more tightly regulated category.
Riedel notes that U.S.-based companies that are developing electric air taxis have long urged FAA to move faster to spell out regulations for approval of such aircraft, and that FAA has been doing that, albeit not as fast as the industry has hoped for.
“Many experts in the Western world, whether it’s in Europe or in the U.S., have looked at this aircraft design and said these aircraft would be very unlikely to pass Western standards,” Riedel says. “And so practically, [EH216-S] is not going to fly in the Western world anytime soon. And Western companies will most likely be in the market way before EHang.”
EHang said it intends to begin commercial operations, but it did not specify when or in what Chinese city. Previously, the company said it would focus on sightseeing and tourism before it tackles commuting.
Air taxi industry analyst Sergio Cecutta says China has a large enough domestic market that demand for the EHang aircraft can continue to grow for years, which means the company will be learning about airspace coordination, traffic control and the passenger experience.
“We see this as a positive development, but it is still a vehicle in China for China at this point,” adds Cecutta, founder and partner with California-based SMG Consulting.
He speculates that some curious Americans may decide to purchase an EHang aircraft and fly it in a limited capacity in an unregulated, ultralight capacity, but “liability would be crazy expensive” given that there’s no regulatory approval in the U.S. Also, U.S. companies including Texas-based LIFT Aircraft and California-based Opener LLC are already putting pilots in small eVTOLS — the Hexa and BlackFly, respectively.
“In the end though, it’s important that no one underestimate China, because we have tended to do that too many times in the past,” he says. “We looked at their electric cars 10 years ago and thought they looked like toys, but some of the leading electric cars come from China now.”
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