Uber's future air taxi design. Image courtesy of Uber
Uber’s goal is to start testing electric-powered vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles in 2020, followed by the start of a commercial aerial ride-sharing service in 2023. Eric Allison, Uber’s new head of aviation programs, explained at the company's annual Uber Elevate Summit this week how the service plans to reach its goal both technologically and economically within the next five years. Allison joins Uber from a previous stint as the CEO of Zee.Aero (now called Cora), which flew its own first electric aircraft in March and is slated to begin short-trip services in New Zealand in the next few years.
The company is using its internally developed Flux Optimizer tool to evaluate three-dimensional models and real-world examples of how its air taxi operations will function in the future. The tool combines its own data about daily trips in major cities with third-party data about movements of people throughout major cities. What it demonstrated at its summit Tuesday was how its concept could work in Los Angeles based on the city's average 45 million trips that occur over a typical 24-hour period by car.
According to Allison, the goal for UberAir is to make the passenger cost per mile using an Uber air taxi comparable to the current cost of car ownership. Today, car ownership ranges between $0.46 to $0.60 per mile, according to AAA. At launch, Allison estimates UberAir will cost $5.73 per passenger mile. In the near term, Uber said it aims to reduce that cost down to $1.86 per passenger mile and then $0.46 per mile, at which point it would be cheaper to use UberAir than to drive.
During his presentation, Allison revealed computer-rendered models of sky ports that could be deployed on the tops of tall buildings or parking garages. Currently Uber is working with six different architectural design firms, each of which is providing presentations about its future designs at the Uber Elevate Summit this year. Allison describes the future Uber air taxi operational concept as a network of nodes within sky ports that could handle thousands of takeoffs and landings simultaneously per hour.
Allison said UberAir is not achievable using traditional helicopters.
“We’ve actually operated at Uber helicopters as a promotional service, and we quickly realize that we just can't achieve this scale of business with this because they're just so expensive to operate," Allison said. "So how could we ever be cost competitive if we're starting this $9 per passenger mile in a helicopter. How can we make cost competitive to car ownership for aerial ride-sharing? How is that possible?”
He pointed to five specific operating costs from Uber’s standpoint that must be addressed. These costs include aircraft maintenance, the cost of energy to power each flight, the cost of training and paying pilots to operate the vehicles, and the costs of vehicle capital expenditure and the skyport infrastructure.
The eVTOL vehicle design Uber unveiled ahead of its summit's start is key to helping the company achieve operating costs that are lower per passenger mile than an automobile today. Known as the eCRM-003, the eVTOL has the appearance of a futuristic cross between a drone and a turboprop aircraft. It has four pairs of co-rotating rotors that are driven by electric motors to provide vertical lift with a cruising altitude ranging between 1,000 to 2,000 feet. The aircraft is designed to be fully electric with an expected range of 60 miles “per charge,” according to Uber. Allison said these aircraft, which do not yet exist, would be “three times less expensive” to operate than today’s traditional rotorcraft.
Stan Swaintek, a former special operations military pilot and director of operations for Uber’s aviation division, provided an overview for how an actual flight would be operated and coordinated with air traffic controllers.
Swaintek described a central network concept that “will coordinate flight clearances, upload missions trajectories and direct exactly tight internal flight procedures to ensure safe separation and air traffic compliance." Uber's system would also be capable of "dynamically displaying critical mission information our pilots through an avionics interface that provides enhanced situational awareness and a flight control integration that enables simplified vehicle control,” said Swaintek.
Of course many technological, logistical and regulatory hurdles remain toward making Uber’s air taxi concept a reality. For example, will there be enough available infrastructure to convert into sky ports without clogging riders into hard-to-get locations that are clogged with other waiting riders? Will city councils be open to the potential noise impact of hundreds of air taxis taking off and cruising at 1,000 feet? How will civil aviation regulators provide adequate regulation for a concept that doesn’t exist yet?
These and other unanswered questions are why Uber is not operating in solitude — instead choosing to partner with long-standing aviation industry companies and organizations. The ride-sharing company has signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA for airspace management modeling and simulation algorithms to assess the impacts of integrating UAM operations in an urban environment. The U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) has also signed an agreement with Uber to develop and test vehicles to be used in the proposed urban aviation ride-sharing network.
“Whether we're talking about hundreds or thousands of aircraft operating over an urban market — one thing is certain: the level of precision that is required to safely manage flight activity that dense has never existed in aviation at scale," said Swaintek. "That is why we are designing our operating system from day one to manage this level of complexity."