Uber’s mission is to “make transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere, for everyone.” They have started to make this a reality with their groundbreaking ride-sharing application. However, Uber does not want to stop at simply improving existing transportation options, they want to reinvent transportation as we know it.
One of Uber’s endeavors in this vein has been to transition from human drivers to self-driving cars. However, driverless cars still face many of the same problems as traditional cars. They can’t travel more than ~70 miles per hour and they must often follow circuitous routes due to the nature of our road infrastructure.
Uber believes the real future of transport within urban areas is not on the ground, but in the air. This is why they have recently released a whitepaper proposing a fleet of small electric vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft that will transport people throughout large metropolitan areas much faster and more efficiently than existing ground-based solutions.
Uber is in the process of laying the business, technological and regulatory groundwork that will make air taxis a travel option for their users.
The core of Uber’s vision is a number of air taxi hubs located around a given metropolitan area. At these hubs, users will exit their Uber car, hop in the Uber aircraft for a long hop across a metro area and then hop in another Uber car upon landing to get to their final destination. With one hub in San Jose, CA and one in the Marina District, San Francisco, travel time along the peninsula could be reduced from 2 hours to 15 minutes.
Potential Hub Location, Credit: Uber
Surprisingly, Uber predicts in the long-term, a trip like this would cost only $20 once the technology matures and the fleet is operating at scale. They predict the near-term costs would be closer to $130, only $20 more than it would cost to take an UberX.
In order to make this vision a reality, there is a lot of work to be done across multiple areas:
- Battery and Propulsion Technology
- Noise Reduction
- Cost Reduction
- Safety and FAA regulations
- Air Traffic control
- On-ground infrastructure
Uber addresses all of these in their whitepaper.
Most notable in the whitepaper is the vision for the technology behind the air taxis. We’ve been sold a future of flying cars since the 1950’s, so why is this feasible now if it hasn’t been before? Uber claims that modern battery technology has now made distributed electric propulsion (DEP) feasible. DEP involves placing multiple small, simple, electric motor/propellor units around an aircraft instead of relying on one or two mechanically complex jet engine units for propulsion. These smaller electric propulsion units reduce noise significantly. They aren’t powered by loud combustion processes and the propellers have a much smaller tip-speed, reducing the noise they create. This new aircraft design paradigm will enable efficient, quiet, small aircraft for local transportation.
Helicopters, in comparison to DEP aircraft, are loud and prohibitively expensive to operate and maintain. The San Francisco Bay Area has dozens of helipads, many of which are non-operational due to noise restrictions.
Uber lists a few potential vendors for their aircraft including Joby, Airbus, and others. Here is a computer simulation of Joby’s S2 design:
The company has also detailed the projected costs of purchasing and operating these vehicles:
One of the big risks to Uber’s plan is that battery technology will not mature fast enough to make these vehicles economically viable to operate. They assume a continuing trend of decreasing costs, charge/discharge times and increasing kWh per kilogram.
However, Uber’s largest risk is regulatory. In order for fleets of air taxis to ever exist, this plan must get the approval of the FAA and local regulators. Uber and its partners must prove that the air taxis will not be a nuisance to homeowners as they fly over residential airspace. They must also prove that the existing Air Traffic Control (ATC) infrastructure can handle these vehicles and then hope that ATC can get next-gen systems online that will be able to handle hundreds or thousands of vehicles transporting people around a city at any given time.
The vision Uber lays out is compelling. It seems they are taking it upon themselves to push for technological progress from the aircraft companies and the regulatory progress from governments. Seeing them succeed in this endeavor would be impressive, but they face a lot of challenges and any real air taxi service operating at scale seems to be at least a decade away.