Electric scooters? Child's play. Proliferation of autonomous vehicles? That's sooo 2025.  Let's play leapfrog and jump to self-flying taxi's, shall we?

Except it's not such a leap anymore.

Uber just shared more detailed plans at its third Uber Elevate conference, intended to outline its vision for UberAir, an airborne ride-hailing service called an air-taxi. It's the company's answer to addressing growing traffic congestion, which studies show it's clearly adding to.

In fact, research also shows that Uber and Lyft cars spend more time driving around NYC empty than do yellow cabs. So the company is placing a gigantically bold bet on future growth as it can't just keep putting cars on the road.

But with the bold comes some brash. The predominating underlying theme to the conference, as reported by cnet, is that it's closer than you think.

As Uber's Head of Aviation, Eric Allison said, "It might be something that exists in sci-fi fantasies, but we want to make it real here. These vehicles are past the research phase and we're now at the point where they'll be employed commercially"

The Vehicle

The vehicles Allison is referring to are essentially mini-electric helicopters employing eVTOL technology, short for electric vertical take-off and landing. It can go 150-200 mph at an altitude of up to 2,000 feet and works off a rechargeable battery. It would be 32 times quieter than a standard helicopter and be half as loud as a medium sized truck.

The anticipated cost at launch would be $6 per mile, with the aim being to get that down to $2 per mile. The company has already announced partnerships with aviation companies to build the air-taxi's and has hired former NASA engineers to help move the plans forward.

The "Skyport"

At the conference, Uber showed off potential "Skyport" designs, buildings that would serve as the hub for air taxi departure and arrival. Passengers would mini-copter to the hub of their choice and then have a short walk to their final destination.

The Skyports, tall, circular buildings, would be designed such that the sounds from within would be directed up into the sky versus adding to the noise below. Initially, Uber wants to use existing infrastructure upon which to build Skyports, like airports, helicopter landing pads (5,600 lie unused in the US, 40 in LA alone according to the cnet report) and rooftop parking garages.

The Tests and Timing

Uber plans to run its first test flights in 2020 with its first official UberAir trials in 2023. They've already got an agreement with the cities of Dallas and Los Angeles to run test flights with five international cities vying for the first non-US trial run. Plans are for a trial fleet of 50 vehicles to fly across five Skyports in each city.  

By 2025, Uber wants 300 air-taxis running with carpooling entering the picture to help drive down the per passenger cost.

By 2030, the company believes autonomous aircraft will further reduce costs as will the then approved mass production of eVTOL vehicles. Also, as cnet reported, by 2030 Uber wants to launch 1,000 aircraft in 50 cities worldwide, with 50 Skyports in each city. 

The Highway

You can't just have air-taxi's flying willy-nilly all over town, so how do you control their flight patterns? Uber says the solution is sky lanes--a virtual network visualized with augmented reality to create "roads in the sky." The lanes could change according to traffic patterns, times of days, or perhaps if Beyonce was coming to town.

The Question(s)

Oh, where to start. Nothing visionary happens without solving blinding problems, and Uber has no shortage of them.

The infrastructure currently doesn't exist for the Skyport vision en masse--even if the company initially plans to tack onto existing airports and helicopter pads. Cities will have to change planning and zoning ordinances to accommodate its radical new tenants. And the cost to build the infrastructure will be profoundly expensive, not a small consideration for a company that is still losing a lot of money despite having a net revenue approaching $8 billion dollars.

Regulation will be a nightmare for this endeavor. Autonomous cars are creeping along let alone autonomous flying cars, which means involvement from the FAA, which has said regulating unpiloted aircraft will be the biggest hurdle. The entire FAA system is built on monitoring and directing human pilots, after all.  

Which brings us to the question I have for you, dear reader.

Does the demand exist?

Maybe you're skittish about jumping into an autonomous vehicle, how about an autonomous air taxi? 2000 feet is a long way down.

But has your commute deteriorated to the point where you'd give it a go?

As for me, I'm still getting use to FaceTime. Don't worry about me jumping the air-taxi line at your neighborhood Skyport. 

Published on: Sep 26, 2018
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