Uber Elevate – Is The Future Finally Here?


Nobody who attended Uber’s Elevate conference this week — or watched the live online stream — would come away thinking it’s going to be easy to create autonomous flying taxis, but there’s a good chance you’d be convinced it’s doable. If nothing else, the corporate names were impressive — this wasn’t just enthusiasts and academics sharing ideas, but major players from Embraer, Bell Helicopter, Airbus, Pipistrel and more committing to take part in the vision that Mark Moore helped to develop over his 30 years at NASA, before he was lured away in February to head Uber’s Elevate initiative.

But being convinced it’s doable isn’t the same as being convinced it’s really going to happen. As Aurora CEO John Langford said in our AVweb interview, the flying-car idea is a lot like the idea of going to Mars — it’s inherently achievable, there are no real technological barriers, but it’s always 20 years away. What’s it going to take to get there? Some kind of commitment, some deep-deep-pocket funding and maybe some buy-in from the public at large. Maybe if people just decide, enough already — I’m not waiting another minute for my flying car! — that demand would somehow infiltrate the industry, and compel decisive action. Or maybe — just maybe — this week’s Uber Elevate conference, with its open online access and extensive media coverage, and its ambitious 2020 goal to have demo systems up and running in Dallas and Dubai, will be the event that turns the tide.

The speakers at the conference examined every aspect of the new system, from electric powerplants, to charging stations, to rooftop parking lots, to air traffic control and collision avoidance. If there was a deal-breaker in there anywhere, I missed it. The slow process of certification is certainly a concern, but with the new Part 23 set to take effect in August, that may be a less daunting barrier than it used to be — at least there’s no longer a problem certifying electric powerplants. But there is at least one thing I can think of that could derail the flying-taxi vision — and that’s if autonomous cars get here first.

After all, the main attraction of the flying taxi is that it would free you from the ground-bound traffic on the surface, saving tons of time by flying direct point to point. But if autonomous cars are perfected soon enough, some of that attraction might evaporate. Commutes will be faster, with cars connected to real-time traffic-flow data. And the time spent commuting will be perceived as less of a loss, if it can be spent doing other things besides driving. But maybe the vision of Pipistrel General Manager Ivo Boscarol is what will make the difference — he sees the trip from your home to the takeoff site as an unnecessary waste of time, and imagines a vehicle that will hover outside your windowsill to pick you up, and connect you in the most direct possible way to your destination. “In the end, I’m always right,” he said. If the goal is to achieve ever-greater efficiency, it does seem that he’s on the right track.

But beyond the practical aspects of how to best move people around from point to point, general aviation pilots balk at the prospect that their hard-won skills could soon be obsolete. Langford said he expects air taxis won’t have a stick or rudder pedals in the cockpit — pilots will fly using a touchpad and screen. I can hear the groans of dismay from AVweb readers! The next step will be full autonomy, no onboard pilot required. But what separates a pilot from a passenger? Is it skill, or is it control? If the aircraft goes where I tell it to go, am I still the pilot? Uber’s Elevate vision could have us facing all these questions soon, ready or not.