Ubers in the sky in five years: revolution or flight of fancy?
The e-hailing firm says it will launch its air taxis in 2023, but critics say it's all a pipe dream they've seen before
Uber’s flying cars aren’t called flying cars. Mark Moore, the company’s engineering director, quietly objects to the phrase.
“I’m an engineer so I would call them the most accurate description, which is an electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft. That’s a mouthful. So I will let the public decide.”
Flying cars, or air taxis, or eVTOLs, have long been an engineering dream. Since before the Wright brothers took to the air, humanity has dreamed of daily, convenient, routine flight. The idea of slipping seamlessly through the air from home to work to appointments without having to deal with traffic or roadworks is a far cry from the current air travel reality of long queues to board, hours spent in strip-lit airports and the indignity of removing your shoes in front of hundreds of other tired passengers at security.
Many have tried, and all of them have failed. Now Uber says it is close to making it a reality.
The company, best known for car-hailing services that let you call a cab on a smartphone app, says it will begin experimental flights in 2020 and a full commercial launch by the end of 2023. What’s more, it says the service won’t be reserved for those who can currently afford to charter a helicopter to fly them across a city.
“We have zero interest in doing this for the elites,” says Moore.
Moore, who has been working on flying machines for 32 years at Nasa, is adamant that this time it’s happening for real. “I’m so grateful that the technology didn’t take another 10 years and I’d already retired, and that I could see this wonderful transition from research, and everything become real,” he says.
What’s been the big breakthrough? “It’s a convergence, where the electric motors have got so good, the batteries have got so good, the digital controllers for those motors have got so good, that all of the different pieces of that distributed electric propulsion architecture are ready to go.”
He faces many sceptics.
One of them, Richard Aboulafia, a well-known aircraft industry analyst at the Teal Group, says Silicon Valley technologists, excited by disruption, have been too keen to rush a shiny new vision which is not yet realistic. “I’m just not convinced that from an economic standpoint, a technology development standpoint, that we’re anywhere near ready for this long-awaited future,” he says.
An approach more grounded in reality would be “incremental” improvements, slowly making existing helicopters safer, cheaper and quieter. But, Aboulafia says “people in the technology development business don’t like incremental measures. They like a story of out-of-the-box transformation.”
If Uber is right, and he is wrong, it will be a reality in less than five years’ time. Electric flying shuttles, operated by professional pilots, would fly for a maximum of 100km at a time and navigate between skyports which stretch high above city centres and motorways. They’ll cut out hours spent sitting in traffic in congested cities such as Los Angeles. The idea is repeated short trips, charging for five minutes in between each as they stop to unload and pick up passengers. Each would be as productive as 20 UberX cars on the ground.
Uber’s belief is that it can use its expertise with software managing and tracking trips to organise the airspace. It’s leaving the actual vehicles up to outside companies, engineering partners that are building futuristic-looking flying machines themselves, at their own expense. Some of them, such as Texas-based Bell Helicopters, have a long pedigree in the aerospace world. But Uber says it’s not looking for a new kind of helicopter, and that there’s a need for something quieter and safer.
Critically, the aircraft are designed to have many parts which can fail and leave them still able to fly. “There’s no question that the technology is available for these vehicles to be dramatically safer, quieter, more efficient and more affordable than helicopters,” says Moore.
But can it make any money?
Initially, it’s likely to be significantly more expensive than Uber cars, at $5.73 (R83) per passenger mile, compared with $1.80 for a private Uber taxi. After a few years, says Moore, pooling passengers and more efficient use of the vehicles will bring this down to $1.84. Eventually, mass-manufactured pilotless vehicles, with cheaper batteries, carrying four passengers at a time will bring costs down to $0.44 per passenger mile – less than the cost of running your own car.
Aboulafia says he’s seen it all before, in the craze for “very light jets” which first took over the aviation world 15 years ago and then failed to live up to the hype. “It’s a simple calculation. The low prices are dependent upon untenable numbers, and the untenable numbers are dependent upon the unsustainable low prices,” he says. “On-demand air travel is fundamentally expensive.” Even if the new designs are highly successful, and the existing market for privately run civil rotorcraft – currently about $1bn a year worldwide – triples, that’s still a tiny fraction of the $130bn jet liner market. “It’s going to be a nice level of growth relative to existing helicopter services. But changing society and making everyone billions of dollars? Nope.”
One thing that definitely isn’t realistic, at least for a while, is a flying car for everyone’s driveway, Back to the Future style. Trees and power lines make it too risky and dangerous for them to land in the field. And the vehicles being developed for Uber are expected to cost $2m to $2.5m, putting them out of most people’s price range.
For them to be privately owned passenger vehicles, they’d have to become autonomous first, to do away with the requirement for highly trained pilots to fly them. The industry also wants to avoid the problems caused by the widespread public availability of drones, such as the airport shutdown in Gatwick in December 2018 caused by drone sightings near the runway.
It’s a “very chaotic private ownership model, where people are doing whatever they want, wherever they want. It creates all sorts of problems,” says Moore. “What we’re modelling our system after is much more like commercial aviation, where we have very controlled locations, where our operations take place, so that we can absolutely manage it incredibly precisely.”
The plan is for Uber’s service to initially launch in Dallas and Los Angeles, as well as a third city outside of the US. What about the UK? The weather, as ever, is a problem. “We want to start in cities that have better weather, Los Angeles-type weather. We don’t want to go to Detroit or Scotland as our very first city. We want to crawl before we walk before we run,” says Moore.
– © The Sunday Telegraph