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How Uber is getting flying cars off the ground

It wants to fly you around cities as in the Jetsons, but there are still roadblocks to overcome before UberAir can take flight.

Pickard Chilton/Arup/Uber

It's 6 p.m. in Tokyo and my flying car is late. Three years late.

Back to the Future promised me flying cars (and hoverboards) by 2015. Yet here I am in 2018, standing in one of the world's most high-tech cities and I have to walk. I don't even get to do it in self-lacing shoes.

I'm in Tokyo for Uber Elevate, Uber's third conference outlining its plans to get flying cars off the silver screen and into our skies in as little as two years. It's a lofty ambition, but Uber has partnered with some big names in aviation and picked up its share of NASA alumni to help it get there.

The goal? UberAir. A future transport network in which air travel is as easy and on-demand as Uber rides are now. As simple as "push a button, get a flight."

Sounds like science fiction? Uber is adamant it can happen.

"It might be something that exists in sci-fi fantasies, but we want to make it real here," says Uber's head of aviation, Eric Allison. "These vehicles are past the research phase and we're now at the point where they'll be employed commercially."

But there are big questions that need answering.

Our roads and transport systems have largely remained unchanged for the past century. How will our cities adapt when there's a taxi taking off from every skyscraper? How will we regulate the massive influx of aircraft in our airspace? And how much will you have to pay for the privilege of skipping traffic in your own personal, on-demand sky taxi?

In a world where Silicon Valley promises us the moon, how much of the air taxi dream is hype and how much is the real deal?

The answer is a line pulled straight out of the pages of a 1950s comic and one you can expect to hear parroted more and more as the dream takes shape: It's closer than you think.

Uber's reference model for its electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle, the eCRM-003.

Uber

The car of tomorrow, today!

"It's closer than you think."

You get the impression it was a line rehearsed and repeated ad nauseum in team-building meetings ahead of Uber Elevate.

In keynote speeches, my one-on-one interviews with Uber's aviation team and even in casual conversation in the corridors, it was a tantalizing (yet noncommittal) promise.

"When will I get my flying car, Uber?"

"Be patient. They're...," speaker leans in, lowers sunglasses, "...closer than you think."

But the joke's on them. Up until a few months ago, I thought flying cars were far-off fantasies, like hover bikes or holidays on Mars.

But UberAir has already released a reference model for an on-demand air vehicle. Even better, it's not just a Ford Pinto with a Cessna bolted on the back. (Yes, that was a real thing in the '70s and no, it didn't end well.)

The tech behind Uber's aircraft and others like it is known as eVTOL, short for electric vertical take-off and landing. Uber's design has four sets of twin rotors that it uses for vertical lift and a single rotor for forward propulsion. It would cruise at speeds of 150 to 200 miles per hour at an altitude of 1,000 to 2,000 feet and could travel 60 miles on a single charge, but would more likely be partially charged in between short hops around the city.

Uber says current batteries can do those quick charges in 8 minutes, but improvements in battery chemistry could cut this down to 5 minutes. That means an aircraft would land on a rooftop (known as a "Skyport" in Uber's world) and charge its battery while passengers disembark and new passengers board.

Now playing: Watch this: Uber reveals more about its flying taxi ambitions
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As for the cost per ride, the company says UberAir at launch would be $6 per passenger mile traveled. In the near term, with the introduction of mass-produced aircraft and passengers taking pooled rides, that cost could come down to $2 per mile. Compare that to $9 per mile, which Uber says is the best-case operating cost of a standard helicopter.

And what about noise?

Uber says its aircraft would be 32 times quieter than a standard helicopter. Gone is the helicopter's noisy combustion engine (which Uber says operates at 30 percent efficiency) in favor of an electric engine and powertrain that operates at 90 percent efficiency. Throw in smaller, paired rotors (which would rotate in the same direction for less noise) and a wing for flight and Uber says its design would be half as loud as a medium-sized truck.

At Elevate, Uber also showed off prospective Skyport designs built over highways to make use of already noisy city areas, and Skyports with "sound attenuation baffles" that direct noise from takeoff and landing upward into the sky, rather than down to pedestrians and buildings below.

The road network of the future

Just as Uber doesn't own the cars that make up its ridesharing network, it won't be manufacturing the aircraft that fly for UberAir. In 2017, Uber announced partnerships with Embraer, Bell, Karem, Pipistrel Vertical Solutions and Aurora Flight Sciences (owned by Boeing) to develop the vehicles.

Uber isn't alone in the race toward futuristic aviation.

Silicon Valley's Kitty Hawk, backed by Google founder Larry Page, is testing an air taxi, known as the Cora, in New Zealand, as well as an electric personal flying vehicle known as the Flyer

Then there's Rolls-Royce plc -- the aircraft company, not the automaker -- which has designed an eVTOL taxi that gets electric power from a gas turbine. Aston Martin has also revealed designs for its seriously futuristic-looking Volante Vision, and Massachusetts-based Terrafugia has actually built its first hybrid aircraft-road vehicle (complete with fold-up wings) which it wants to start selling next year.

Aston Martin Volante Vision Concept

Aston Martin's Volante Vision is the company's foray into "personal air mobility." While air taxis (like those proposed by UberAir) are ideal for pooled rides and moving as many passengers as possible, Aston Martin's focus on "personal" travel may make it less of an option for every day travellers.  

Aston Martin

But flying cars are only part of the picture. That's according to Boeing, which acquired Uber's partner Aurora and which wants to prove that a century-old company can still be at the forefront of futuristic aviation.

Just as we don't use one single type of vehicle today for all our travel needs, Boeing says our future transport needs will be diverse, too. According to Steve Nordlund, the vice president of the company's future transport division, Boeing Next, that could mean ridesharing in a Boeing-made air taxi to the airport, and then flying at "outrageous speeds" in one of Boeing's hypersonic jets to get from Tokyo to London in three hours.

"Our vision is not that someone pulls a car that converts to an airplane out of their garage and takes off in their driveway," Nordlund said.

But that vision of "flying cars" still persists. With so many companies working on different aircraft, what do we call them? Is "flying car" the best we can do?

Uber's air taxi reference model doesn't require a runway. 

Uber

The industry hasn't yet settled on its terminology. And according to Uber's head of aviation, Eric Allison, the discussion has led to "cataclysmic debate" internally at the company.

"'Flying car' is equivalent of 'horseless carriage'," he told me at Elevate. "We don't know what the right term is, but it's probably not flying cars. We've called them eVTOLs which is also kind of terrible."

Ultimately, Allison is a fan of "air taxi." It's the most descriptive, he says, and points to one of the central concepts of the Uber Air: There's no need to own your own private plane to take to the sky.

Getting airborne

As I sit in the back of a regular taxi on the ground after a long flight from Sydney to Tokyo, the dream of flying over traffic is very enticing. The standard peak-hour taxi ride from Tokyo Narita airport to Haneda airport on the other side of the city is upward of $200, and the 50-mile trip takes at least an hour and a half in traffic.

But where we're going, we don't need roads.

With UberAir (based on Uber's projected operating cost of $1.84 per mile), that same ride could cost less than half the price of a taxi and take just 17 minutes.

It's not just about faster travel times for passengers. For Uber to continue growing as a company, it can't just keep putting more cars on the road. A study from Boston's Metropolitan Area Planning Council (PDF) found that Uber and Lyft vehicles are "exacerbating congestion" on roads, and that 42 percent of passengers who traveled in these rideshare cars would have otherwise taken public transport. In New York, figures show rideshare cars actually spend more time driving around empty than New York yellow cabs, and the City Council recently voted to cap the number of Uber and Lyft vehicles on city roads.

The solution Uber's found? Looking to the sky.

uber-air-route-tokyo

An UberAir route in Tokyo, compared to a regular taxi and public transport. Uber says its on-demand air taxis will help fight congestion and dramatically reduce travel times.

Uber

Your regular Uber ridesharing car won't disappear -- the company says UberAir will complement existing transport to create a "multimodal" network. A full trip might start in an Uber car that drops you at a Skyport to take an UberAir flight across the city, before you take a short walk or even an electric bike to your final destination.

The sky doesn't just offer free space, it offers a different way of thinking about routes. Take away the concept of linear roads -- A to B, B to C and so on -- and replace that with Skyports that work like nodes, letting travelers jump from A to any letter of the alphabet across the city.

So why is Uber the company that's going to fix traffic? Is this just another Silicon Valley company big-noting itself as the single solution to all our woes?

Aside from talking up Uber's collaboration with industry partners, Allison spent a great deal of time at Elevate trying to prove that Uber is more than just a ride-hailing app. He talked up the company's strengths in predicting traffic patterns, analyzing the way people move around cities and building software that integrates things like walking times, delays and pooled journeys into a single app. According to Uber, the transport networks of the future won't be built by the companies selling personal aircraft to individual millionaires -- they'll be built by the people who can create the platform for everyone to fly.

But Uber also insists it's not just talking about the future -- it has a roadmap for actually building it. (In the words of one Uber staffer at the Elevate conference, "We didn't just send out a tweet that we want to do flying cars.")

On the sidelines of the event in Tokyo, I met with Uber's director of engineering for vehicle systems, Mark Moore. He joined Uber in 2017 after 32 years at NASA working on vertical take-off and landing aircraft. He of all people should know whether this is just Silicon Valley hype.

"It's absolutely going to happen, much sooner than people think, because of two reasons," he tells me. "The technology is finally here to do it and the need is absolutely urgent to help cities with ground congestion."

The timeline

Moore is methodical and soft-spoken as he talks me through Uber's timeline for UberAir.

By 2020, Uber plans to run its first test flights, before rolling out UberAir trials in 2023. The trials are slated to take place across three pilot cities (Los Angeles and Dallas in the United States, as well as a third international city, still to be decided from a shortlist of five) with a trial fleet of approximately 50 aircraft flying across five skyports in each city.

If Uber can get regulators on board and roll out the necessary infrastructure in the next five years, Moore says those trials will get the broader community to "buy in, that these are quiet vehicles, they're safe and they really provide this new, high-productivity transportation."

By 2025, Uber plans to scale up to 300 aircraft in each city and start pooling passengers into group rides. Moore says this will help drive costs down to somewhere "in the order of an UberX ride." (A standard UberX ride in LA is $1 per mile, compared to UberAir's estimated operating cost of $2 per mile).

dreammaker-estadio-embraer-x-2

Uber's aviation partner Embraer has designed its own eVTOL concept, based on Uber's reference design.

Embraer

By 2027 to 2030, the company says the introduction of autonomous aircraft will help drive costs down further. That's also the timeline for eVTOL aircraft to start entering mass production, allowing UberAir to go global. By 2030, Uber plans on rolling out 1,000 aircraft across 50 cities worldwide, with approximately 50 skyports in each city.

Uber wants to use existing infrastructure like airports, helipads and rooftop carparks for its skyports in the early stages. (In a 2016 whitepaper, Uber said there were close to 5,600 helipads in the US that are "essentially unused," with more than 40 in Los Angeles alone).

But the company also recognizes that infrastructure is required for air taxis to "achieve anything approaching their potential." And that infrastructure costs money. In its whitepaper, Uber said it would cost $121 million in "infrastructure repurposing" costs to roll out 83 skyports across three to four cities.

Throw in the cost of aircraft, maintenance and pilots, and it's a lot to lay out -- especially for a company that has watched losses steadily grow since 2015 and reportedly lost almost $1.5 billion over just three months last year.

But Uber is nothing if not ambitious. Mass production will drive vehicle costs down. Efficient motors will cut maintenance costs. Even pilots will be replaced by automation. In the long-term, Uber says costs will come down. And Uber wants to keep the focus on the long term.

"When people think of flight today they don't of it as an everyday transportation option," said Allison. "We envision a world where your commute will be faster and cheaper through the air to the point where it's essentially economically irrational to drive your own car."

When I press him to tell me exactly when this world will arrive, Allison is less precise, but still bullish.

"When I'm retired in 50 years and it hasn't happened, I'll be disappointed," he said.

I'm cynical, but sitting down with Moore, I realize it's the first time I've actually thought about flying cars being a reality. Here's an actual timeline (an ambitious one to be sure) that shows when Uber believes its version of the future will arrive.

Later, I speak to Uber's director of engineering for energy storage systems, Celina Mikolajczak. Like Moore, she came to Uber with an impressive resume, including six years as technical lead for battery technology at Tesla. Uber Elevate was packed with plenty of young gun Silicon Valley types to sell the sizzle of UberAir, but it's Moore and Mikolajczak who feel like the grownups with the experience to get it done. And, more importantly, they believe it can be done.

"Mark came to Uber from NASA, and he did it because he wants these cars to fly. He wants this to happen," said Mikolajczak. "And when I came [to Uber] I saw a combination. I saw people who realistically knew what the real thing was going to be, and it was going to be hard. And also I saw the idealism and the passion."

That idealism is certainly on show. But there's also another way to put it. As one Uber staffer said to me on the sidelines of the conference, why would someone give up a 30-year career at NASA if they didn't completely believe that flying cars could actually happen?

Suddenly, the future was feeling closer.

Going up and growing up

So, we build the flying cars. We get the app to connect us with other travelers and time our "multimodal" trip down to the minute.

There's just one problem. And it's us.

Our society is not ready for flying cars. Our governments are naturally conservative when it comes to big, hairy, audacious goals; they were slow adapting to Uber cars, let alone entire fleets of air taxis. Regulators will need to be on board, and aviation regulators like the Federal Aviation Administration in the US won't be playing fast and loose with these new aircraft.

Then there are the town planners, the construction industry, the building managers. (I wouldn't even know how to get to the top of my office block if you put a Skyport there.) Our cities are going to have to radically change if we expect unpiloted air taxis to be commonplace in our skies.

uber-air-skyport-humphreys-partners-2

Uber has commissioned potential designs for its skyports, but experts say building this kind of infrastructure would require a major shift in how we think about city planning. 

Humphreys & Partners/Uber

According to Tim Schwanen, director of the Transport Studies Unit at the University of Oxford and an expert in urban geography, that lack of infrastructure is one of the major roadblocks to establishing major air taxi networks.

"The basic structure of the transport systems that will exist 30 years from now is already fixed and is very unlikely to change easily," he said.

Schwanen says the promise of flying cars is a classic case of "hyped" expectations and a future city built around flying cars is "little more than a sci-fi pipe dream."

"At some point in the next years it will become increasingly clear that those expectations are unrealistic because technologies are not quite able to perform in the real world, wider infrastructures need to change, insufficient capital is available, legislation proves much more difficult to change than previously anticipated, and there is actually very little demand for the new technology."

Even if we can reshape and rethink our cities to build the necessary support for air taxis, we still need to rethink how we use the sky and manage air traffic. I've played Flight Control on my iPhone -- I get in a panic when I'm trying to land more than three animated airplanes on a 4-inch screen. Sure, Uber will leave it to actual professionals, but how will they handle the massive increase in aircraft numbers?

When it comes to regulation, the FAA is tentatively on board, though it says it's still studying what's involved in dealing with that "volume of traffic."

"While the technology to make and operate a 'flying car' is available now, the integration of those aircraft into a mature aviation system will take considerable effort," an FAA spokesperson told me via email. "The FAA continuously integrates new technology into aviation and this will be just one more example, albeit a significant one, of that integration effort."

But the "largest hurdle" to overcome, according to the FAA, is regulating unpiloted aircraft, which UberAir is hoping to introduce by 2027 to 2030. That's because the FAA's entire regulatory system is built on having a human pilot behind the controls.

"The level of automation necessary to safely replace functions of human pilots and air traffic controllers will require significant changes to our regulations and operational infrastructure, as well as concerted technology development efforts," the spokesperson said.

But unlike the Uber we might have known from a few years ago -- the company that encouraged "toe-stepping" and "hustling" and set up shop in new cities with a "burn the village" approach -- the execs at Uber today know they have to be patient. That's a good thing. When you're playing with the big kids, you don't want to go stepping on toes.

Tom Prevot is one of the big kids who has come to Uber to help it grow up before it goes up. Before starting at Uber in 2017 as director of engineering for Elevate Cloud Services, he spent 20 years at NASA.  

"We don't want to boil the ocean," said Prevot. "We want to test these new systems very conservatively and scale them over time."

Prevot's solution to all that new traffic is "sky lanes." Kind of like three-dimensional roads for the sky, these virtual lanes would map where aircraft fly using predetermined routes. The full network of sky lanes could also be dynamic, meaning their direction could be altered at different times of the day to suit busy traffic periods (kind of like lanes on a freeway moving in and out of the city).

"The entire network is virtual, so you don't need to build any infrastructure for it," he said. "And you could visualize it easily with augmented reality. You could look up to the sky and say, 'Here is our sky lane network, here are where our aircraft are flying.'"

When I start to think about the different technologies we've been promised for the future, I get a faint glimmer of the future Prevot envisions: hyperefficient, autopiloted drones hopping between traffic nodes around the city, fast-charging their batteries on rooftops like next-gen Teslas while air traffic controllers reposition their routes around the city in augmented reality.

And all I need to do to get a ride is press a button in an app.

Nothing can possibly go wrong!

At Elevate, I rode in a VR simulation of an Uber air taxi. I watched my 3D aircraft leave the ground, fly over a generically rendered city and then land in a Skyport across town. All while sitting opposite two semitransparent, faceless grey avatars designed to represent my fellow passengers. I remember noting that even though they were see-through ghost mannequins, the distinctively male avatar was still manspreading across both armrests. The future can't save us from everything.

Of all the futuristic animations I'd seen over two days in Tokyo, this one stuck with me as the best encapsulation of Uber's dream (not the manspreading part).

The vision looked beautiful. But I couldn't see myself in it.

And that's the problem. Beyond the faceless grey avatars opposite me in that VR air taxi, I can't see humans in this future. Because even if you can build the infrastructure, regulate the aircraft, manage the sky lanes and get the landing-recharge-takeoff cycle down to five perfectly timed minutes, this seamless transport future forgets to take one thing into consideration. Humans are terrible.

We're late for our taxis. We miss our flights. We complain on airplanes and we manspread across armrests.

Uber is selling its dream with 3D animations showing glossy white aircraft and massive multistory Skyports. But what happens when the regulators don't play ball? What happens when the app glitches or the autopilot fails? Or, at the worst end of the spectrum, what happens if there's an unexpected fatality?

And what happens if Uber doesn't stick around long enough to turn this vision into a reality? The company just survived the annus horribilis that was 2017; the company's CEO has been at the helm for little over a year (after former CEO Travis Kalanick was forced to step down); and while Uber made $7.5 billion in sales last year, it lost $4.5 billion.

Can the brave new world that Uber promises exist if Uber doesn't deliver it?

According to Allison, Uber sees itself as a catalyst for change, but the company isn't setting out to single-handedly build the future.

"We did it in a partnership model because it's really too much for one company to do alone," he said.

Part of me believes the future of flying cars is just around the corner and Uber will be the company to play a strong part in getting us there. I believe in the technology, I believe in the experience and and I recognize the expertise of the old guard Uber has brought on board. I also believe necessity will force our hand -- whether it's the need to get off fossil fuels and go electric, or the need to expand upward and use new technologies as our cities sprawl and roads choke with traffic.

But part of me is also trying to see the future, beyond the Silicon Valley hype. To work out which city it is I'm flying over, or where my Skyport destination will be, or to simply make out the faces of the passengers opposite me.

Because I might have seen the brave new world of transport in Tokyo. Or maybe I was just taken for a ride. 

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