A prototype design of an Uber air taxi. Image courtesy of Uber
FAA Acting Admin. Dan Elwell is excited about the possibility of electric-powered vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) air taxis in the near future, but not necessarily within the next five years, as some manufacturers of the vehicles are projecting. During a panel discussion at the Uber Elevate Summit this week, Elwell attempted to outline the challenges facing Uber’s aggressive path to certification for establishing its concept of operations for urban air mobility.
On the first day of its second annual summit, the San Francisco-based ride-sharing company introduced all of the members of its new aviation division and unveiled a prototype design for what the future Uber air taxi will look like. The company sees 2023 as its goal for obtaining certification for the first air taxi design, with operations to follow shortly thereafter. The FAA, however, might not be able to support that timeline.
“You are hoping to be in operation by 2023," Elwell said to Uber Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden during a one-on-one session at the summit. "We’re in the process of going through the certification process for drones today. So I don’t think out to 2023 is too ambitious, but I’m certainly not going to make any commitments."
Uber in 2016 published a white paper outlining what it believes could help accelerate the certification timetable, arguing for the use of standards that will define electric propulsion currently under development by the ASTM Committee F44 on General Aviation Aircraft. While electric aircraft such as Pipistrel’s Alpha Electro are approved for operation in Canada and Australia, that approval does not apply to aircraft registered in the U.S. where no such category for certification exists.
Still, Uber believes that the FAA and EASA’s adoption of performance-based certification in recent years as opposed to its traditional prescriptive model will allow the development of standards for electric-powered vertical-lift aircraft. Karem Aircraft, for example, which was announced as a new vehicle partner for Uber, could apply to the FAA to issue an experimental airworthiness certificate for its aircraft before the type certification basis is defined. But in order to place passengers in a Karem, Embraer or Bell air taxi by 2023, the FAA ultimately has to certify the aircraft and the operation itself.
Regardless of how the certification timeline and criteria ultimately plays out, the one element of future eVTOL air taxi operations in which the FAA will not compromise is safety.
“What I will tell you unequivocally [is] there will be no degradation in safety as we know it today,” said Elwell. In 2017, the FAA reported no recorded fatalities in crashes of commercial jets for the fourth year in a row.
Uber’s Holden also raised the issue of how to manage air taxi traffic during the discussion. He suggested that there could be new airspace “corridors” created for thousands of air taxis to operate. Those corridors would be managed by an air taxi service provider or possibly Uber itself, Holden suggested.
Elwell, however, said at least as the FAA currently sees it, he would prefer integration rather than segregation of airspace for air taxis.
“My hope is we don’t have to do that,” said Elwell, referring to the segregated airspace concept. “Even if we’re going to do eVTOL from airports into the city, my hope is you’re going to be able to do it in an integrated way. To be honest the airspace around complex and dense traffic areas, corridors are going to be far more difficult than cracking the nut of true integration."