Uber At OSH


Think how boring life would be without the starry-eyed dreamers, the unshakeable optimists and the grand visionaries who are utterly incapable of allowing even the slightest harsh reality to tarnish that bright future just over the hill.

That would pretty much describe the people ushering in the next big thing in aviation: the on-demand urban air taxi. Specifically, Uber’s ambitious plan to launch Uber Elevate. See our news story on the rollout of this idea at a Dallas conference last April.

What Uber Elevate has in mind is a sizeable fleet of pure-electric VTOL aircraft—not necessarily multi-rotors, by the way—shuttling passengers around urban areas through a node-based system with launch facilities they call Vertiports. (New word for you.) They expect to have demonstration vehicles flying by 2020 and actual operation at low-scale by 2023. You can hear more details on this in a podcast I recorded with Uber Elevate’s Nikhil Goel and Wyatt Smith. You can then decide if you think any of this is remotely possible or likely. As they explain, the vehicles will eventually be autonomous.

Personally, I place myself in the it’s-possible-but-highly-unlikely camp. Just to be clear, Uber’s concept isn’t rooted in the totally daft idea of flying cars which, despite my personal crusade to render the idea ridiculous beyond all rational thought, continues to gain yet more coverage in the daily press. One reason for that is that tech billionaires are getting interested in it and those guys didn’t get those billions by embracing stupid ideas, right? Right?

What Uber has in mind is dedicated aircraft propelled by distributed electric power—basically motors attached wherever thrust is deemed to be needed. This offers genuine technical advantages, not the least of which is that it can be employed in tilt-rotor designs for fixed wing aircraft that would be more efficient than helicopters. So far, so good. On paper, it’s at least plausible, if not entirely realistic.

Uber shrewdly organized the high-profile conference in Dallas last spring and recruited some heavy hitters to at least endorse it, thus allowing the on-the-fence-doubters to think, hey, this thing is real. It’s here or soon will be. Whether it achieved that goal or not, it did get a lot of press so the promotional mission was at least accomplished. They name checked a few companies: Embraer, Bell, Mooney, Aurora, Pipistrel.

Uber described these as “partners” but it’s more accurate to think of them as interested parties in the way that a chicken is involved with a bacon and egg breakfast. The chicken is involved, the pig is committed. (Pipistrel has its own demonstrated electric aircraft program, but uptake is proving slow.) Worth noting is that Airbus said it would, by 2020, certify a four-place hybrid electric aircraft for the U.S. market. It has since withdrawn that plan, although it has an aspirational electric aircraft program on simmer.

But for Uber, no sale for this customer. I could list a lot of niggly reasons for skepticism, but two stand out: a delusional view of certification and a business plan, if there is one, that’s too dependent on scales not likely to be achieved. In other words, instead of a stand-up double, Uber is swinging for the fences.

As soon as I heard Uber Elevate’s Nikhil Goel say the Part 23 revision is a path paved with gold bricks making certification of electric airplanes a lead-pipe cinch, I knew I was listening to someone whose skin hasn’t been scabbed over by actually completing a cert project. No, no, I occasionally hear, this time the FAA is really sincere about efficient certification. I’m not buying it. Show me an example or two and I’ll relent. We are, after all, not talking about just another new airplane, but an entire class of new commercial aircraft with no certification history, no operational experience and no risk model. Quick and easy to certify? I’m gonna go with no. Certifiable eventually, for sure. Just not quickly.

Second, scale. Uber Elevate says its pricing models are based on a level of aircraft manufacturing we haven’t seen since World War II. What might that be? As late as 1978, the general aviation industry was producing nearly 18,000 airframes a year. So Uber is talking about volume even greater than that.

Business plans—especially aviation business plans—that do-or-die on high volume have a high likelihood of failure because there’s a high likelihood that those millions of customers you were sure would heave baskets of cash at you won’t share your vision. This is exactly what happened to the very light jet concept. We used to throw around VLJ like periods and commas, but now it’s as forgotten as SST, AAS and a million other acronyms. (Can we only hope the ADS-B will soon share the same fate?)

Twenty years ago, then NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin told an Oshkosh audience that a revolution in design, materials and manufacturing efficiency would result in a new golden (sorry) age of GA, with 20,000 airframes a year spilling out of the factories, dominated by the now-banished VLJ. The manufacturing revolution happened, the airplanes didn’t. It’s too simplistic to say that demand never materialized because the prices weren’t as low as promised, but it’s denial to say that wasn’t a big reason.

People coming new into aviation bring fresh eyes, new ideas and innovation. All good. We need a dose of new thinking to offset the hidebounded cynicism of people like me. What they lack is knowledge of the basic laws: gravity, weight, schedules, the grinding pace of certification and an understanding of the Aviation Dollar. The Aviation Dollar, depending on the exchange rate, is equivalent to between five and 100 regular dollars. Even aviation-experienced innovators sometimes lose sight of this.

That’s probably a good thing, though. If they didn’t, they’d hole up in their windowless offices writing the next big social media app and thank the baby Jesus, we sure need that.