With the announcement of Uber's flying taxi concept in Los Angeles today, the web's been abuzz with talk of flying cars and eVTOL craft. But we've had a vehicle that can vertically take off and land for decades, yet the humble helicopter hasn't really revolutionized urban transport during its lifetime. How is Uber's concept any different?
Most people have never ridden in a helicopter. That's mostly because they're just too expensive for the average commuter to charter. Uber's eVTOL concept looks a bit like a helicopter, but Uber says that it's a totally different animal and the differences extend beyond the hardware.
The ride-hailing company devoted time during its Uber Elevate Summit to break down how it hopes to make urban air travel affordable.
Cutting early costs
Between the high maintenance and energy costs, pilot training and salary and the cost of maintaining large helipads and paying landing fees, Uber reckons, based on its early UberChopper experiments/promotional stunts, that a helicopter trip has a best-case operating cost of about $8.93 per passenger per mile, pretty much limiting access to just the rich.
First, Uber will tackle the operation cost. With its more efficient electric propulsion system and ability to cruise in an energy-efficient fixed wing mode once airborne, Uber claims its eCRM-003 eVTOL concept is up to three times more fuel-efficient than a standard single-rotor helicopter. Electric propulsion requires less maintenance, in theory, than a combustion engine, further reducing the running cost.
Rather than large helipads or airports with landing fees, the smaller eVTOL craft will land at flexible skyports, the construction of which could be as simple as painting a landing zone on the roof of a parking deck and adding charging for the craft. In the space that one heli could land on, Uber hopes to start at around 20 landings per hour at launch and to be able to scale from there. Uber has also already partnered with Hillwood Properties and Sandstone Properties to secure real estate for the UberAir skyports.
Out of the gate, Uber's internal estimates put the eVTOL concept's cost per passenger per mile down to around $5.73 or about 35 percent lower than chartering a chopper when the service launches in 2023.
Further optimization and ride pooling
From there, Uber plans to continue to optimize. Much like how the introduction of UberPool allows commuters to dramatically reduce the price of a ride, Uber hopes to add ride-hailing optimization and smart trip planning to UberAir.
Pooling riders, planning first- and last-mile trips to and from its skyport hubs with ground transportation and adding dynamic pricing can make sure that its four-passenger eVTOL aircraft operate smartly. Uber even mentioned discreetly and dynamically weighing passengers upon arrival to place them in optimal seats to best balance the aircraft for efficiency. Seems extreme, but every little bit counts.
With smart pooling of riders and smarter trip planning, Uber thinks it can get the operation cost per passenger per mile down to around $1.84 per passenger in the short term following UberAir's launch. That's looking a lot better.
Automation and scaling
From there, economies of scale should start to kick in. Uber needs its partners to build thousands of eVTOL vehicles per year to bring the price down and to make possible its plans for thousands of flights per hour and more widespread networks in partner cities.
For example, Uber's early plans for Los Angeles include about a dozen skyports operating a few hundred short flights between them per day. Further down the line, it's looking at scaling to around 40 ports in the LA area, some with up to 1,000 takeoffs and landings per hour. For comparison, the FAA monitors around 43,000 flights in the US per day. Uber wants about 10 times that many per day in just one city!
Before it can even think of getting to that point, air traffic control will need a major overhaul. Air traffic automation -- similar to how cities have integrated automation into traffic lights for highways and streets -- seems to be the only way to handle such insane levels of traffic. Uber's still a few years away from needing a solution, but it's already in the early stages of working with the FAA and NASA.
Speaking of automation, the last major cost to cut is the pilot in the cockpit. Uber's goal for its eVTOL vehicles is fully autonomous operation, which will not only save the large cost of training and paying a pilot, but also improve vehicle efficiency since there'd be 200 fewer pounds of meat in the driver's seat. That tight level of integration with autonomous air traffic control I mentioned will also require vehicle autonomy for the sheer number of aircraft that Uber wants to reach.
Through scale and automation, Uber's long-term estimate for eVTOL operation drops to about 44 cents per passenger per mile. (For comparison, Kelly Blue Book estimates that an Audi Q7 costs about 92 cents per mile to operate.) Seems a bit pie-in-the-sky at this point, especially considering that it hinges on not just a revolution in vehicle automation, but also a complete rethinking of how air traffic control works in the US. It's nice to have goals, I guess.
Will you be able afford it?
So, will you be able to afford UberAir when it gets here? Well, we've been looking at operating costs based on Uber's own estimates, so take them with a grain of salt. That said, if it can reach its goal of 2023 deployment, the first few years of UberAir will only really be affordable for the very well-off. The estimated operating cost isn't that much lower than a helicopter.
But if UberAir sticks around long enough for Uber to figure out ride-pooling and flight optimization, the price may drop low enough within a few years to make it worth grabbing the occasional UberAir to the airport. Ultimately, Uber wants its urban air transport to be as affordable as owning a car, but it'll be some time (and a pretty large leap in automation technology) before it gets there.
Of course, consider also that Uber isn't the only one in the flying taxi biz. Someone could beat Uber to the punch or beat it on pricing. One way or the other, the skies over our cities could be a lot busier in the future.