Uber Isn’t Joking About Flying Cars

By Brian Steiner |  December 12, 2017

Uber Technologies turned commuting on its head in 2009, when it first released an app that would summon a black car.Now, with millions of riders and several hundred thousand drivers worldwide, a small team of Uber employees are focusing on a new and audacious objective: avoiding traffic congestion by flying over it.

Uber’s Elevate initiative aims to launch a new fleet of electric aircraft that would hold a pilot and up to four passengers. And the company plans to begin its first Elevate test flights in 2020 in places like Dubai, Los Angeles, and Dallas, and be fully operational by 2023.

NASA veteran researcher Mark Moore, Uber Elevate’s Director of Vehicle Systems.

While Uber’s initial service took advantage of cars that were already on the road, outfitted with smartphones and the company’s app, Elevate is radically different. It will require Uber to work with partners that are designing new kinds of aircraft that aren’t yet certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. And the vehicles will be a lot more expensive than a four-year old Toyota Camry.But Uber has begun hiring NASA veterans to take the Elevate concept from white paper to the wild blue yonder. Elevate is based in Uber’s San Francisco headquarters and overseen by Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden; today there are fewer than 50 people involved in the project.

Technology advances make the moment right for a new kind of vertical take-off aircraft that won’t require a runway or airport, says Mark Moore, Uber’s director of engineering for vehicle systems.

Powered by electric motors and advanced rechargeable batteries, Moore says the new class of electric propulsion systems are quiet and reliable, despite delivering as much power as jet engines. “It’s just a whole new Wild West frontier, in terms of being able to use these technologies to plan new vehicles that simply weren’t possible before,” he says.

Uber envisions Elevate as a fleet of vehicles that cruise horizontally like an airplane, but take off and land vertically like a helicopter. The ride-sharing company outlined its vision in April at the Elevate Summit, where it met with business partners including Aurora Flight Sciences, Bell Helicopter, Embraer, Mooney, and Pipistrel Aircraft that are working to turn its plans into a reality.”Uber is very much a software company, so we’re staying in our area of expertise,” Moore says. “Instead of developing the vehicles, we are putting the entire transportation system together like a giant jigsaw puzzle, and making sure that everything works to be able to meet the user needs.”

Elevate will be part of Uber’s network, incorporating both air and ground operations, says Tom Prevot, director of engineering for airspace systems at Uber. He says the idea of the Elevate network isn’t too different from the initial plans for Uber’s car service.”The initial idea of ‘push a button, get a ride’ will evolve now to the idea of ‘push a button, get a flight,'” Prevot says. “What it really is is you push a button and you’re probably going to get some multi-modal trip where an Uber car may take you to the next SkyPort. You then board one of these electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles that take you in the air very quickly pretty much where you want to go and ideally you just walk to your destination,” he says.

“Uber, of course, is trying to integrate all these different pieces of this multi-modal trip to give you a very seamless experience from where you are to where you want to go,” Prevot says.To ensure that Uber and its partners attack the opportunity methodically, a white paper spelled out the key market barriers to launching an on-demand flying car service today, namely:

    1. Aircraft certification by safety authorities like the FAA in the US and EASA in Europe
    2. Battery technology for electric engines
    3. Vehicle efficiency
    4. Performance and reliability
    5. Air traffic control
    6. Aircraft cost
    7. Safety, including some capabilities for autonomous flying
    8. Noise
    9. Emissions
    10. Airport (or “SkyPort”) infrastructure in cities
    11. Training enough pilots

Despite those issues, Uber believes urban flying will be big, and that saving time will be a key value proposition, given the traffic snarls that plague so many major metropolitan areas. To prove the feasibility of Elevate while working out the kinks, Uber chose the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Texas and the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, respectively, for its first U.S. pilot program and international site.Within those markets, Uber is partnering with local, state, and national authorities to put the appropriate infrastructure in place to develop Elevate. That includes engaging with local FAA offices to make sure Elevate doesn’t interfere with current traffic or put additional burdens on air traffic control systems, Prevot says.

The Elevate team expects most flights to be about 25 miles or less. Vehicles will take off and land at SkyPorts, dedicated pads on top of parking garages and buildings within city centers and suburban areas. In the Dallas area, the company partnered with Hillwood Development Co., one of the largest privately-owned U.S. property developers, to build the first SkyPorts.”We’ll start with about five SkyPorts, and then over several years expand that…to the order of 25 or more SkyPorts that can be highly distributed and permit very rapid flight,” Moore says.

Another major goal of Elevate is to make it as affordable to fly as it is to take Uber on the ground.”Although that’s stunning to hear that, it’s very true. And the reason for it is these aircraft are incredibly productive,” Moore says. “We’re able to amortize even expensive vehicles to achieve very affordable trips.”

“One of the key parts going into affordability is being able to do things such as we do on the ground already with UberPOOL, and that is we don’t just want to fly one person around in an almost empty vehicle, but be able to pool people together so that we can have three or four passengers sharing the ride and air pooling together, so that it’s an affordable and well utilized vehicle that really makes sense as a transportation solution.”Elevate was a project hatched under Uber’s founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick. But Kalanick resigned in June after pressure from the company’s investors, and was replaced by former Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in August.

Elevate is one of several forward-looking initiatives Uber. Others include AI Labs, the basic and applied research division of the company that solves problems around self-driving cars, optimizing urban logistics, and keeping riders safe.

An Uber-produced timeline for testing and attaining certification of the new vertical takeoff (VTOL) aircraft. GAMA is the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.