Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America

Vertiflite Leadership Profile from Vertiflite May/June 2022

Eric Allison, Head of Product, Joby Aviation

Joby Aviation is generally considered to be the designer and manufacturer of one of the most advanced electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, which the company is currently working to certify with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). However, Eric Allison, Head of Product at Joby, is quick to point out that the “product” is more than just the vectored-thrust electric air taxi. “I’m really focused on designing the service effectively,” he explained. “How is this aircraft going to get into the hands of consumers, whether through our own app that we’re developing or through deep integration with Uber?”

When Joby, in Santa Cruz, California, acquired the Elevate aerial ridesharing division of Uber in December 2020, both companies agreed to integrate each other’s services to create a seamless air and ground travel experience for customers. “This is a key enabler for our business, because at Joby we’re not just going to manufacture the aircraft,” said Allison. “We’re going to own and operate them as well. We’re building this tech platform that weaves together the operations, the maintenance, the pilot — all of these pieces — and connects them with the service through a single back end.”

Joby’s stated mission is to bring fast, affordable, zero-emissions air mobility to communities worldwide. The company’s five-seat eVTOL aircraft is just the first product it is bringing to market, Allison noted. “Our vision, in the long run, is to save a billion people an hour a day,” To make the vision a reality, Allison leads a cross-functional team that brings together market intelligence, modeling, software engineers and aerospace experts who aim to build a new transportation ecosystem. From recent college graduates to 30-year industry veterans, the team brings to bear a diversity of experience and perspective that is incredibly important, Allison said.

“We focus first on the product intelligence side of things — the modeling of how we think about these networks — how they operate, how we look at demand,” said Allison. “We combine that with the custom proprietary model we developed at Uber Elevate and continue to develop, which looks at the price elasticity of consumers for this type of transportation. Fusing all that together, we build a model of how an aerial ridesharing network would actually work within a city.”

The other side of Allison’s team is building the tech platform needed to actually deploy an air taxi service, leveraging prior work that began at Uber Elevate. In 2019, Allison’s team launched and ran Uber Copter, a multi-modal transportation service in New York City that used helicopters as a proxy for future eVTOL aircraft. Now, of course, Allison has access to a functional eVTOL designed for an air taxi use-case. “That allows the team to model and explore possibilities with fewer assumptions and more real-world data.”

Engineering Perspective
Eric Allison was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and raised outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. “I’ve always loved vehicles. I’ve always loved transportation. I have a vivid memory in seventh grade of going to the Wright-Patterson Air Force museum in Dayton, Ohio.” When Allison was 13, a family friend and retired engineer who had designed propulsion systems for aircraft on display gave him a meaningful tour. “It was kind of that moment that I decided I was going to be an aerospace engineer, recalled Allison. “He even told me, ‘Study mechanical engineering in undergrad and then specialize in aerospace because it’ll give you a broader base.’”

The Milwaukee School of Engineering provided the basis for graduate studies at Stanford University. Allison explained, “Stanford is one of the top aerospace engineering schools in the world, so that definitely appealed to me. But growing up in the Midwest and braving the winters of both Minneapolis and Milwaukee, I could go to Massachusetts or California — I chose California.”

A doctoral fellowship provided research flexibility. “I did some work on small satellites initially, but I didn’t want to do my thesis on that. I ended up working with Professor George Springer, legendary in the composites field. We wound up teaming up with a professor in the medical school who was in charge of the endoscopy department at Stanford. We looked at how we could use ultrasound to actually drive little stomach capsules around to do a cheaper, easier form of upper gastro-intestinal endoscopy. It was really interesting working with a water tunnel, taking force measurements on the millinewtons scale, doing all of the good engineering things. Really, thinking about things as a system is what aerospace is all about.”

Allison earned his PhD in Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2006. “I built circuit boards. I built amplifiers. I did all these little things that really gave me the broad perspective around how do you build novel systems using new types of technology, which I put to good use with a bunch of airplanes we made at Zee.” Consulting work on computational fluid dynamics code with Stanford professor Ilan Kroo led to pivotal roles at Zee.Aero, first as director of engineering and ultimately as CEO. “Ilan got the opportunity to start Zee, and I went with him to get it going. I ran engineering and helped build that whole team from essentially Day Zero.”

The two-seat demonstrator for what is now Wisk’s Cora air taxi flew in 2017. “From the earliest days of working on this technology, I saw the potential,” said Allison. “I think what was important was to see what the use-case was; what’s the product direction? In the early days, a lot of people thought we were going to put these types of aircraft in every garage, but there was no real product thinking. That’s actually why I decided to go over to Uber Elevate and take over that team. The idea of working for a company that had so much product focus was really exciting. How this new type of technology can be brought to the world in a way that’s actually transformational is the thing that motivates me every day.”

Allison headed Uber Elevate from 2018 until 2021. “Operating Uber Copter for a little less than a year in New York City gave us the foundation for a set of tools to actually make on-demand air mobility possible. We’re building our own version of that inside of Joby now that’s going to connect in a different way to the Uber side of things when it comes to offering multi-modal connectivity between ground and air.”

By the time Joby Aviation acquired Uber Elevate and Allison’s team, the air taxi maker had invested over a decade in enabling technologies. “I think there are a number of key advances that have happened,” considered Allison. “The core propulsion technology simply wasn’t available 10, 12 years ago. That’s one of the reasons Joby started developing it from the very beginning. The performance increase in batteries has been slow and steady, but it’s been very real, so that batteries today available in quantity are good enough to bring our product to market. The third piece, I would say, is information technology. iPhones exist today. You can develop an app for them and deploy it in a way that’s way easier than anything you could do 10, 15 years ago. That is a medium in which we can deploy this form of transportation.”

Allison concluded, “The technology’s going to work — that’s not an issue. What has to come together is the technology and the product vision — how do you deploy this with people? How do you design the network? How do you design the actual service pieces? We have a vehicle that works the way we expected it to, and we have developed very deep and unique understanding in performance. Acoustics is a good example. Acoustic performance is not something that can be added after the fact. It’s a design constraint. You have to understand that constraint and the way you can apply that constraint in the overall design process from the very beginning to have a quiet vehicle.”

In February, during recent remotely piloted, high-speed flight testing, Joby’s first pre-production prototype experienced a component failure and was substantially damaged, according to a preliminary report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (see “Pushing the Envelope: Joby Aviation in 2022,” Vertiflite, March/April 2022). The company stated in a recent earnings call that it intends to resume flight testing with its second pre-production prototype once it deems it’s safe to do so. “Over the course of more than 1,000 full-scale test flights, we’ve generated a huge amount of data and learnings about our aircraft design,” says Allison. “This data, along with the data we gained during the envelope expansion campaign, will inform the design of our production-intent aircraft and allow us to build important learnings early in the process. It has always been Joby’s philosophy to test early to de-risk our program, and we can be proud of what the aircraft did achieve.”

Joby Aviation remains committed to producing its air taxi affordably, and Allison noted, “One of our big, important partnerships was bringing Toyota on as our lead investor back in 2019. Toyota’s experience in affordable, reliable manufacturing is second to none in the entire world. We’re learning a ton from them as we build out our capabilities. The strength of our partnerships is incredibly important. We look to bring in the highest quality partners that fit into the overall vision we have.”

Joby was the first eVTOL company to join VFS as a corporate member in 2016, and Eric Allison observed, “I truly appreciate the way the Vertical Flight Society has embraced this new industry — to the point of changing its name from the American Helicopter Society. I’m excited to see this continue as this new prong of the industry grows and develops and does more exciting things.”