Future Ubers May Fly. Will Cities Let Them?

Uber’s Elevate conference, taking place in Los Angeles this week, proves that the company that disrupted surface transportation is serious about doing the same in the air.

Speakers from Uber and partner companies are introducing aircraft concepts, “skyport” architectural renderings and more, while Uber is seeking an international city to join Los Angeles and Dallas as a launch site. Uber now has forecasts designed to show its flying cars will one day be affordable to average consumers.

The message is clear: This is no publicity stunt.

But if cities, cab companies and activists fought back against using a mobile app to connect riders with drivers using their own cars, the social, insurance and even zoning hurdles in the way of small aircraft zipping around at 1,000 to 2,000 feet may be much more daunting.

“It’s great to talk about as an interesting technology, but the number of technological — and more importantly, legal and regulatory — hurdles is absurdly high,” industry analyst Bob O’Donnell of Technalysis Research told The Connected Car in an interview.

To its credit, Uber is starting with relatively modest plans. For example, in Los Angeles, it would start with about a dozen small “skyports,” each hosting about 20 take-offs and landings per hour, according to Roadshow. These four-passenger aircraft, with professional pilots, would have “rider-first” designs and cause less disruption than today’s helicopters do, Uber said in a press release.

The plan is to use eVTOLs, or electric planes capable of vertical take-off and landing. They would rise straight up and then switch to forward motion after reaching flight altitude. Cruising speed would be about 150 to 200mph and a battery would charge in as little as five minutes for a 60-mile range. On Monday, at the conference, Uber released design concepts for such craft that it’s sharing with designers and manufacturers.

These craft would be quieter than helicopters, Uber claims, because rather than have two big rotors going in opposite directions like a helicopter, the eVTOLs would have four pairs of stacked rotors, each going in one direction. Their electric motors would be less noisy and more environmentally friendly. Also, the rotors would be higher so passengers could get in and out without having to duck.

Later, the plans get more ambitious, Roadshow reports. To boost ride volume and lower the cost per mile, there would be about 40 skyports around Los Angeles, with the busiest hosting up to 1,000 take-offs and landings per hour. If that sounds like too much for the air traffic control system to handle, it is. Uber reportedly is working with NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration to eventually automate air traffic control.

In time, autonomous eVTOLs would replace the original piloted ones. Then, with enough scale, Uber reportedly estimates the cost could go as low as $0.44 per mile, nearly as low as some forecasts for self-driving Ubers.

But even without transforming the whole air-traffic control system, putting thousands of small craft in the air above major cities could be a repeat of Uber’s battle against cities and taxi drivers, only more complex and conspicuous.

You wouldn’t need to see a window sticker to identify a flying Uber.

“I just find it very difficult to believe that anything like that would get permitted or licensed in any kind of reasonable time frame,” O’Donnell said. He suspects flying taxis are in part a distraction from Uber’s current challenges, such as legal battles over whether its drivers are employees or contractors. Image is part of it, too. “They want to be seen as the company that’s leading transportation technology.”

In the case of cars, shock has given way to engagement. Uber’s arrival led cities to try to shut it down, but as it expands, they’re treating ride-hailing as part of the whole picture, O’Donnell said. “We’re past the infancy phase of it all, and now we’re into the growing pains.”

Maybe someday we’ll say the same thing about Ubers in the air.

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