Alef’s flying car receives FAA special airworthiness certification
Alef Aeronautics has become the first road legal electric car to be certified by the FAA – through a special airworthiness certificate.
The firm unveiled its ‘Model A’ flying car after emerging from stealth in October 2022 and has been taking $300,000 preorder deposits for the vehicle since and is currently raising for its Series A investment round. The Model A is marketed as the only electric vehicle capable of vertical takeoff and landing from a parking space that can also drive on public roads.
“This is one small step for planes, one giant step for cars,” says Jim Dukhovny, founder and CEO of Alef.
Alef started as a small drone in 2015. Eight iterations later, the team is test flying and driving a full-scale prototype. The Model A will be capable of carrying one passenger 200 miles on roads or 110 miles by air. With no foldable wings, the car body rotates 90-degrees once airborne to act as a flying wing with thrust provided by eight rotors integrated into the body of the vehicle. A mesh forms the upper surface of the car from the outer edge of the body to the passenger compartment which enables airflow for the rotors. Dukhovny tells Revolution.Aero that Alef has been flying for a long time, but, emerged from stealth only late last year. The firm does not like coming to the press unless it has some “real news” to make public, he says. This is one of those occasions.
Dukhovny is keen to distance Alef from eVTOL OEMs. It is not an aviation manufacturer. “Our use case is automotive, our market is automotive, our business model is automotive. That being said, when you get to the technology and legal side of things, we spent most of our time on aeronautics because this is a harder problem to solve. However, we are not an air taxi. We are not a traditional eVTOL like Joby or Archer. We are a car with one more functionality and everything else comes from that.”
Dukhovny founded Alef because his father, Joseph (Leonid) Dukhovny – a famous Ukrainian folk singer and Soviet space scientist – passed his love of science fiction on to his son. That genre, which has inspired daydreams for decades, clearly defines what a flying car should look like. “It is hard to find a person anywhere in the world who hasn’t read a book or seen a film with a flying car in it,” he says. “People understand how it is supposed to function, so we should deliver to people the product they want rather can calling everything ‘flying cars’.”
The problem with working inside that definition is the technological constraints all eVTOL OEMs face – size and weight. Alef’s Model A has to fit in a parking space and driving lane, but still be capable of vertical takeoff and landing and flight. “This has been one of the biggest challenges because the laws of physics do everything to stop you from doing that. Transition is the way we have been able to solve this problem,” says Dukhovny. He says that Boeing and Lockheed Martin both previously attempted this technology and failed. Alef’s patented system attaches the passenger compartment to the main body through a gimbal, allowing it to rotate. This transforms the car into a flying wing where the bodywork extends to the driver’s left and right. “It is not because we are cooler or smarter than Lockheed or Boeing, it is probably because the timing was wrong,” he says. Transition is made possible through software, which makes today’s computing power much more capable of performing this action. (There is also the fast-evolving drone industry to learn from.)
Whilst the award of the special airworthiness certificate is nothing new in the world of eVTOLs, it is in ground transportation. “This is the first car that can drive on the street, it is driving on the roads right now, which also has the certification to fly,” says Dukhovny. The certification essentially creates an aerial testbed in which Alef can continue to flight test Model A through the full flight envelope. Whilst the exact location of the airspace has not been released, Alef has a specific set of coordinates within Silicon Valley outside of any densely populated and routine air traffic areas, explains Dukhovny. “Whilst there are limitations this gives us everything we need right now to continue testing and more.”
After making contact with the FAA, the certification process took no more than a few months. Dukhovny gives the FAA credit for its approach with limited resources. “Many people say the FAA is slow and it can be. But as you know, eVTOLs don’t fit in the current process and flying cars don’t fit even more.”
Dukhovny believes Alef’s ‘obssession’ with safety helped make the process more efficient. The car has 12 motors in total, one for each wheel when driving (common in modern cars) and one for each rotor when flying. All of which are fully redundant. Each of these motors could potentially be powered by an independent battery which would up the safety levels further. The team has been testing its prototype with the batteries located underneath the passenger compartment and has yet to decide on which approach. “There are advantages to both. We are crazy about safety, so having eight separate batteries ups the redundancy, but also having one grouping of battery cells increased safety in terms of centre of gravity,” says Dukhovny. “The FAA could see there was both intersystem and multi-system redundancy [with the Model A]. Even if there was a complete system failure, we have backup system that can take over.” Compared with aircraft and helicopters flying today, Dukhovny claims Model A has at least eight times the safety levels.
In a statement regarding the special airworthiness certification, the FAA said: “The FAA issued a Special Airworthiness Certificate for the Armada Model Zero aircraft on June 12, 2023. This is not the first aircraft of its kind for which the FAA has issued a Special Airworthiness Certificate. This certificate allows the aircraft to be used for limited purposes, including exhibition, research and development.”
Defining itself to regulators, who have often labelled Model A no differently from a Cessna, has been a challenge for Alef. “If you class us as a Cessna, there are a lot of questions. There is a lot of terminology that does not apply. We cannot be looked at the same way as Sikorsky, Cessna, Boeing or Airbus. I understand that policy is going to take some time to be formed and the FAA is doing a good job, so big kudos to them. But, as of today, trying to fit us in any existing light, sport aircraft or helicopter class does not work. Hence, we have to come up with some creative solutions in the short-term.”
He is not neutral, but Dukhovny believes, that compared with eVTOLs, flying cars can get to market as quickly as eVTOLs and then scale at a greater pace. The first use cases for air taxis are largely as a supplement to helicopters and will be used mainly by business travellers he says. “The reason for it is infrastructure. If you think about what Joby needs to operate in London for example, what needs to be there? A lot of helipads need to be adapted and you know how long it takes to build in London,” he says. “Expensive too. And that price is going to be passed to a consumer. I think AAM is much smaller scale in the long-term.”
Alef’s Model A can be a car for the whole commute should you wish. But then when the opportunity to fly, skip that traffic and save time comes up, you can take it. However, it is going to be a long time, if ever, before you can lift off from the interstate 405 and skip the rush hour jam. “So, while no one is taking off the freeway in the short-term, what you can do, after talking with cities such as Palo Alto, is take off from a designated area within a city,” he says. “Cities will mark certain areas in which takeoff and landing is okay, areas where flight is okay and areas where you can never go. The idea is, at first, you have a very small amount of designated white-listed areas for landing and taking off. This can then be expanded over time and in the future hopefully the majority of the city will available.”
The challenge to that expansion will be public acceptance, especially those living within the first white-listed areas (another reason why Dukhovny says he is so focused on safety). But Alef does have one big advantage compared with other OEMs currently certifying, according to its CEO. “As I said, everybody has seen or read about a flying car before. So, I expect it is naturally going to be a lot easier for people to accept something that doesn’t look dissimilar from a Toyota.”
Feel like doing the commute in one of these? Alef is taking deposits for the Model A on its website.