Uber is working hard to convince the aerospace world that its plan to launch a flying taxi service by 2023 is more than just blue-sky thinking.
At its Uber Elevate conference in Los Angeles this week, the company set out a detailed plan to fill the skies with thousands of short-range electric aircraft and announced a partnership with Nasa, the US aeronautics agency, to model an urban air-traffic control system.
Uber laid out its analysis of how a massive increase in aircraft manufacturing, to a scale not witnessed since the second world war, would help drive down the cost of an aerial commute to the same price as its land-based carpooling service today.
The company also revealed its own specifications for what it sees as the ideal vehicle for short hops between the suburbs and downtown, as well as elaborate architectural renderings of the “skyports” from which they would launch.
The barrage of data, demonstrations and announcements was designed to build momentum behind Uber’s aggressive timetable to begin testing “on-demand aviation” in just two years. “To make this happen we have to do something that is basically completely unprecedented: a real-time network of aerial vehicles that all operate together at a massive scale,” said Eric Allison, who recently joined Uber as head of aviation programmes from Kitty Hawk, an air taxi start-up backed by Google cofounder Larry Page.
Some industry sceptics still believe that Uber Elevate is little more than a marketing ploy — something that it can use to boost its valuation when it pitches to investors on an eventual stock market listing or to distract from a series of disasters at the company over the past 18 months. Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX founder, is among the doubters that flying cars can ever take off.
Dara Khosrowshahi, who was appointed as Uber’s chief executive last August, admitted that it took a “couple of sessions and a bunch of reviews” to convince him that it could become a reality. “There’s a lot that has to come together,” he said in an interview that closed the event on Wednesday night.
But Mr Khosrowshahi is convinced that urban problems such as congestion and pollution can only be solved by taking to the skies, whether to deliver burgers via drone or ferry commuters around in a four-seater air taxi. “We have to solve this transportation problem in more than just two dimensions,” he told attendees. “We need this third dimension.”
The San Francisco-based technology company has claimed credit for galvanising a surge of investment into the air taxi market since it held its first Elevate event a year ago. “We are in this for the long term,” Mr Khosrowshahi told the conference.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into start-ups that hope to build new kinds of small, passenger-carrying aircraft. Dozens of new ventures have emerged in just the last few months pursuing various approaches to “electric, vertical take-off and landing” (Evtol) technology.
“There is nothing more iconic to represent the future than flying cars,” said Peter Diamandis, the Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur and investor behind the X Prize and Singularity University, “The joke was always, where’s my flying car? Well guess what — it’s finally here.”
However, Uber’s list of Elevate partners is missing several key players, from aerospace giants such as Boeing and Airbus to some of the best-known and best-funded start-ups in this nascent market, including Europe’s Lilium and Volocopter, Kitty Hawk, Terrafugia and Joby Aviation.
Such start-ups are still unsure whether Uber will prove to be an ally, a rival or just full of hot air. “I’m very excited a big partner like Uber is in this space,” said Maryanna Saenko, an investor at DFJ, a Silicon Valley venture-capital company that has previously backed Tesla and SpaceX. “It’s great to create buzz and excitement. It’s even better to execute on it.”
Even if the technology proves to be ready, much else remains uncertain — from business models and regulations to whether city dwellers will tolerate a swarm of new aircraft in their skies.
Nonetheless, there is growing consensus that these vehicles will be operated as a taxi service, shared between many people, rather than owned and used only by a rich few, like helicopters or private jets are today.
That ride-sharing model, integrated with other land-based transport to ferry passengers to their nearest skyport, presents a huge opportunity for Uber.
The company envisages itself as operating air-traffic control, managing a fleet of vehicles and bringing in customers through its existing car-hailing apps, while relying on manufacturers to bear the costs of making and maintaining the aircraft.
Its putative model resembles the “asset light” approach that proved so successful with cars. But in the Evtol market, none of the assets have been manufactured yet — a process that is likely to cost billions of dollars.
Only a handful of companies have fully subscribed to that vision so far. Uber this week added a new Evtol manufacturer to its roster of partners, Karem Aircraft, an independent developer, as well as battery supplier E-One Moli Energy.
Mr Khosrowshahi said that he had recently pitched Sebastian Thrun, Kitty Hawk’s chief executive, on joining the Elevate programme. “It’s the beginning of a conversation with them,” Mr Khosrowshahi said. “They are unbelievably smart . . . We would love to have them as partners.”
More important still will be winning the backing of regulators.
Dan Elwell, acting administrator of the US Federal Aviation Administration, said this week that any air taxi service would have to be at least as safe as today’s commercial airlines.
He added he was “absolutely” prepared to fly in an unmanned electric plane himself.
“I don’t think [launching in] 2023 is too ambitious,” Mr Elwell said. “But I’m certainly not going to make any commitments.”