Partnering with NASA, Uber to launch flying taxis by 2020
09 November 2017
Uber is taking part in a joint industry and government push with US space agency NASA to develop software, which the company aims to use to manage ''flying taxi'' routes that could work like the ride-hailing services it has popularised on the ground.
Uber said on Wednesday it was the first formal services contract by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) covering low-altitude airspace rather than outer space. NASA has used such contracts to develop rockets since the late 1950s.
The ride-hailing firm announced that Dallas / Fort Worth and Los Angeles will be the first cities served by UberAir, which it says will begin ferrying passengers across the region in electric aircraft in 2020.
Aviation manufacturers such as Embraer, Bell Helicopter, Pipistrel, Aurora Flight Sciences, and Mooney Aviation will supply and pilot the aircraft. Uber will operate the software that passengers use to book a trip and take a commission, much like with Uber rides on the ground.
''We're trying to work with cities in the early days who are interested in partnering to make it happen, while knowing that there will be pitfalls along the way,'' said Jeff Holden, Uber's chief product officer, explaining why the company chose Los Angeles and Dallas as the first cities to test the service.
''LA is a model city for this in that it's highly congested from a traffic perspective, and there's not a great mass transit relief on the horizon,'' Holden said.
UberAir differs from UberChopper, a helicopter service the company has in the past offered during events such as the Coachella music festival, or during summertime for trips between New York City and the Hamptons. Rather than offering the service as a luxury product (trips to Coachella Valley from Los Angeles cost passengers $4,170 each way), Uber envisions UberAir as a commuter option, with fares comparable to taking an UberX car ride.
Holden said Uber would begin testing proposed four-passenger, 200 mph (322 kph) flying taxi services across Los Angeles in 2020, its second planned test market after Dallas/Fort Worth.
Uber has faced regulatory and legal battles around the world since it launched taxi-hailing services earlier this decade, including in London where it is appealing against a decision to strip it of its license due to safety concerns.
Holden described Uber's latest air taxi plans at Web Summit, an internet conference in Lisbon, where he emphasised it was working to win approval from aviation regulators well ahead of introducing such services.
''There is a reality that Uber has grown up a lot as a company,'' Holden said in an interview ahead of his speech. ''We are now a major company on the world stage and you can't do things the same way where you are a large-scale, global company that you can do when you are a small, scrappy startup.''
NASA said in a statement it had signed a generic agreement in January with Uber that enables the company to join a variety of industry partners working with NASA to develop a range of driverless air traffic management systems.
That deal calls for Uber to be involved during phase 4 of this work, which is scheduled to begin in March 2019, NASA said.
Uber is looking to speed development of a new industry of electric, on-demand, urban air taxis, Holden said, which customers could order up via smartphone in ways that parallel the ground-based taxi alternatives it has popularized while expanding into more than 600 cites since 2011.
Uber plans to introduce paid, intra-city flying taxi services from 2023 and is working with aviation regulators in the United States and Europe to win approvals toward that end, Holden told Reuters.
''We are very much embracing the regulatory bodies and starting very early in discussions about this and getting everyone aligned with the vision,'' he said of Uber's plans to introduce what he called ''ride-sharing in the sky''.
Earlier this year, Uber hired NASA veterans Mark Moore and Tom Prevot to run, respectively, its aircraft vehicle design team and its air traffic management software programme.
During a 32-year career at NASA, Moore pioneered its electric jet propulsion project which Uber considers to be the core technology for making urban air transportation possible.
The agreement with NASA aims to solve issues involved in operating hundreds or even thousands of driverless aircraft over urban areas and allow them to co-exist with existing air traffic control systems as well as in and around busy airports.
Uber envisions a fleet of electric jet-powered vehicles - part helicopter, part drone and part fixed-wing aircraft - running multiple small rotors capable of both vertical takeoff and landing and rapid horizontal flight.