Even as the world wraps its brains around the concept of autonomous cars, ride sharing company Uber is pushing for short-trip air mobility services to start as early as 2023. It is bringing together a set of companies as part of its Uber Elevate programme that aims to decongest top cities by offering affordable aerial transportation options.
Launched in 2016, Uber Elevate has developed into a partnership of experienced aircraft manufacturers, real estate and technology companies and government agencies like NASA to create aircraft, infrastructure and SOPs for urban air mobility. The plan is to fly eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft on distances of around 100 km, at speeds between 150-200 mph and a cruising altitude of 1,000-2,000 feet on a single charge. Uber has announced that test flights for the Uber Air service will take place in Dallas-Fort Worth/Frisco Texas and Los Angeles in 2020, with commercial flights from 2023. Last week, it announced that one city from among India, Japan, Australia, France and Brazil will be picked as the third international destination for Uber Air flights.
While surface transport has always been path-based, air mobility can be node-based with each node connected to any of the other nodes. Uber cites the examples of India, where a commute from CST to Mumbai airport or Gurgaon to Connaught Place would be reduced to 10 minutes, saving the users at least two hours every day. Uber’s estimate is that urban congestion costs India alone $22 billion a year.
Uber COO Barney Harford told The Indian Express: “Uber Air will be safe, reliable and, over time, cost-effective. We believe that the model we are developing will make it accessible for many with price points that line up with the cost of getting an Uber X. But that, he adds, will also depend on when the concept is able to “evolve from a piloted version to an autonomous one”.
Since helicopters can be costly, high-maintenance and noisy, Uber is looking at a new type of aircraft for the programme. It is hoping that partner companies such as Embraer, Bell, Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, Pipistrel Aircraft and Karem will be able to come up with a sustainable prototype of an eVTOL aircraft by 2020. This aircraft will be powered by battery, will take off and land vertically, and fly the said distance on a single charge. Eric Allison, Head of Aviation Programmes at Uber, says the hope is that they can catalyse the industry by working with many partners for the product and infrastructure at the same time.
The type of aircraft itself has not been finalised – — it be a winged model, or something that works like a drone? Then there is the challenge around the battery, which should be able to sustain charge for 100 km. Allison accepts that the first aircraft could be hybrids because of the battery challenges. Then there are the skyports where the aircraft will take off and land as well as be charged and maintained. These have to be in central locations and that will have a huge cost implication. Uber is trying to tide over this by planning the skyports as vertical structures in contrast to traditional airports. Another hurdle will be convincing city administration and aviation authorities to clear the concept. For now, Uber is suggesting that the services will be restricted to an air corridor and won’t come in the way of other aircraft, especially since these are low-flying.
Cost of flying
In a market like India, if Uber Air takes off in the next decade or so, the prices might still be prohibitive for the masses. But Allison says even if there’s a smaller percentage of people that are able to afford it at a certain price point, it still can be a very large absolute number (in India). Uber’s projections show that with enough scale, Uber Air could gradually cost less than car ownership.