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Technology

Mobility race takes to the skies with Toyota's flying taxi tie-up

Developers reach across industry lines in bid to tap $1.5tn market

TOKYO -- In an auto sector already drawing on other industries in the push toward electrified and self-driving vehicles, Toyota Motor's investment in an air taxi startup underscores the next frontier in mobility shifting to the skies.

Japan's largest automaker said Thursday it injected $394 million into U.S. startup Joby Aviation, which is developing an electric flying taxi. Toyota will provide mass production technology and electrification know-how as they seek to commercialize the aircraft as soon as possible.

Toyota is working to create the so-called CASE vehicles -- connected, automated, shared and electric -- expected to dominate transportation in the future, as President Akio Toyoda said in 2018 that the automaker would transform into a mobility company. Thursday's announcement adds Toyota's dream of air travel to the mobility mix.

Development of flying cars has advanced in recent years on the anticipation that these vehicles will solve urban congestion and other transportation issues. Demand is expected to rise for air taxis, along with airlines that use conventional passenger jets. Morgan Stanley estimates that the global market for flying cars will grow to $1.5 trillion by 2040.

"Air transportation has been a long-term goal for Toyota," Toyoda said Thursday. The Japanese company and Joby will "tap the potential to revolutionize future transportation and life," he added.

Joby Aviation's electric flying taxi: The American startup received a $394 million injection from Japan's largest automaker. (Photo courtesy of the company)

Toyota's vision for airborne personal transport dates to the company's birth. The founder, Kiichiro Toyoda, worked on developing light aircraft before World War II. In 1943, he created a two-seater helicopter prototype.

International rivals such as Ford Motor, Daimler and BMW were once involved in aviation operations as well.

But for flying cars to emerge as a convenient mobility option, they must adopt cutting-edge advances in conventional autos such as self-piloting and electrification.

Joby, founded in 2009, is developing an all-electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, or eVTOL, which would eliminate the need to build runways. That feature makes the eVTOL a favorite to break out as the flying car of choice.

Toyota offers years of mass production expertise to devise products that balance quality with costs. The automaker also has provided support to SkyDrive, a developer of flying cars founded by volunteer engineers. But the partnership with Joby is Toyota's first substantial step toward commercialization.

Silicon Valley has taken the lead in air mobility. Sebastian Thrun, the artificial intelligence expert who put together the pioneering autonomous-driving team at Google parent Alphabet, went on to launch the flying car startup Kitty Hawk. And Uber Technologies already has teamed with Joby.

Other big-name car manufacturers have entered this field. Hyundai Motor announced an aerial ride-sharing development tie-up with Uber this month. Daimler has invested in German air taxi startup Volocopter. Back in Japan, Subaru and financial services group SBI Holdings jointly funded Bye Aerospace, a U.S. engineering company that builds electric aircraft.

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