Uber Elevate - Is The Future Finally Here?

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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.

Comments (32)

Uber will happen in a big way, the flying car will not. The flying car needs a runway, the Uber taxi needs a landing pad the size of your driveway. Uber taxi will essentially be a flying drone requiring charging stations (we already have them) and very little charging capacity. Transportation in high density areas will not require huge range with charging stations all over the place, however, they will save people a heck of a lot of time vs. sitting in ground vehicles. Uber drones will be a cake walk to fly as has already been demonstrated with model drones vs. flying a model RC airplane which requires a little bit more skill. Uber will flourish in high population density areas (i.e.) New York City etc. Where are you going to land a flying car in New York City? Uber drones will eventually go autonomous if not immediately. Given GPS navigation, WAAS, etc., this is a no brainer.
Autonomous Uber drones will eliminate confrontations between flight crew and passengers, there will be no flight crew to get stupid with. Larry will have to find another way to get his Cirrus. Uber passengers can fight among themselves for window seats etc. I suspect the Uber drones will be fairly small in capacity given where they will benefit people the most, again, high density areas with not a lot of area for departure or arrival (i.e.) roof tops etc. No flying cattle cars.
Uber drones will not be cheap, then again, time is money and those that can afford the ticket will definitely benefit from the time saved. Uber will happen in a big way and it will happen a whole lot sooner than you think. There is just such a huge demand out there for this type of transportation. I'm surprised you don't see this coming given the deluge of flying drones we currently have.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | April 29, 2017 6:44 AM    Report this comment

Actually, Thomas, I do see it coming, but I've seen it coming for a long time. There are a lot of variables...but maybe Uber has it all figured out. We'll see how it goes!

Posted by: Mary Grady | April 29, 2017 8:47 AM    Report this comment

The fruition of mass autonomous "ride-sharing" is as questionable as running across the freeway in Los Angeles, at rush hour, on a Friday, in summer. Yes, it's doable. This concept has conference goers agreeing in public but slapping themselves on the forehead in private. It's just another dilution of intellect. Uber's $68 billion Is not all the money in the world. Bad idea. Sorry YARS.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 29, 2017 9:27 AM    Report this comment

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | April 29, 2017 1:04 PM    Report this comment

" If the aircraft goes where I tell it to go, am I still the pilot?" No, you are the customer; the computer is the pilot. It's kinda like a charter flight, you tell the crew where and when you want to go then sit back, swill champagne and the computer/pilot does all the flying. If the computer detects some problem with weather or equipment it makes the final decision whether or not the flight goes.

Posted by: Richard Montague | April 29, 2017 1:16 PM    Report this comment

The demand for better travel has pushed us this far. Less than 150 years ago the horse trainer and buggy maker was the most important folks in town. Deadlines are important to push people, it's just the way we are. The one who meets the deadline will get the 'employee-of the-month' parking spot.

It's coming, maybe not by the deadline but, it's going to happen. It took baby steps to get from the Wright Flyer to the Boeing 787. Alexander Graham Bell didn't download a face-to-face talk app.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | April 29, 2017 2:19 PM    Report this comment

As I penned in another space, Thomas Edison did not set out to improve the candle.

Uber - the crowd-sourced ride-hailing platform - is a great idea. Uber - the company that runs the platform - is a slow-motion train wreck that is managed by inexperienced, smug morons. Consequently, they think that the next "killer app" is an improved candle - a quick, short aerial hop from downtown to the airport.

News flash: people aren't waiting breathlessly for a faster way to stand in line, shoeless, for two hours, so they can (maybe) board an airliner to somewhere. Getting to the airport is not THEIR objective. Getting to their DESTINATION is their objective.

The "killer app" for low-passenger-count autonomous on-demand air transportation ("flying cars?") is complete origin-to-destination (or damned close) transportation. It's "affordable" Part-135-for-everyone transportation. Guess what - for trips of 500 miles or less, it's not only "do-able," it's practical. It will happen. When? Probably by 2025. If not in the FAA's domain, then surely almost everywhere else.

What will the vehicles look like? Well, they WON'T include crew (or flight controls), and they WON'T include batteries as a primary source of electricity. They very well may consist of three "modules:"
A passenger module, with provisions for providing a comfortable environment.
A flight tractor, with everything needed to conduct flight.
A ground cart, for instances in which ground-to-ground travel is unavoidable
The passenger module will be mated to whichever locomotion module is appropriate for a given stage of the travel mission.
The flight tractor's source of electricity will be a chemical-fuel-driven generator, or a fuel cell.
The ground cart's source could be either of those two, but just as likely (or more) it will be batteries.
The passenger module's electricity needs will be provided for by whatever locomotion module it's attached to.

Sorry, Raf. :-)

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | April 29, 2017 3:51 PM    Report this comment

Hmmm, 2025? I plan to be around by then. Hope to see you thereafter and compare notes. Cheers, YARS.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 29, 2017 5:36 PM    Report this comment

We have had helicopter charter services for several decades now. The regulation forbids them landing at your house in most places. Nothing is stopping anyone from calling one to fly them from a place they can legally land to another place they can legally land.

Why is it so different to ride in a R-22 or a pilot-less drone?

Why do we have to wait till 2025 to charter a helicopter?

Posted by: Klaus Marx | April 29, 2017 10:59 PM    Report this comment

Can't see the forest from the trees? Good point Klaus.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 29, 2017 11:16 PM    Report this comment

We've had taxi services for how long? Why is it so different to ride Uber vs. the traditional taxi?
Cost and service. Uber has destroyed the traditional taxi.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | April 30, 2017 6:17 AM    Report this comment

Did not know this.

Uber and Lyft both carry liability insurance and screen their drivers. But, the terms and conditions with passengers establishes the risk on the passengers and intend to free Uber of responsibility for drivers' behavior. Not entirely the case with the traditional taxi companies.

cnet.com/news/how-risky-is-your-uber-ride-maybe-more-than-you-think/

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 30, 2017 8:57 AM    Report this comment

"Why is it so different to ride in a R-22 or a pilot-less drone?" Ummmm..... The pilot-less "drone" has:
A zero-weight "pilot."
An extra passenger seat.
No 25-foot diameter rotor disk.
No tail rotor.
Much lower noise signature.
Lowered levels of cabin noise and vibration.
Much smaller required landing/takeoff area.

Vertical-flight capability is about all that they have in common.

What's coming is something totally new. The FAA needs to acknowledge that, and not try to make light bulbs comply with candle regulations.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | April 30, 2017 8:58 AM    Report this comment

Uber didn't kill taxi companies, it just assisted their suicide. Traditional taxi companies are mostly protected by government regulations. As such they do not have to worry about competition. They can have filthy cabs, nasty and rude drivers, exorbitant prices, and overall poor performance. Customer service fugaboutit. Uber offers a customer feedback service, where poor performers are not able to survive.

I had the misfortune to have to take a cab from an airport to a local shopping mall. Uber is not allowed to pick up. The cab was driven by a hostile smelly driver, it was more like riding in a dumpster and the driver refused to take us to our destination. Took Uber back. Clean car, pleasant driver good service. Oh yes and the cost was less than the dumpster a.k.a cab.

Will Uber be able to do this with personal air travel? Not sure but they are in the exploration stages. Will the final service product be as depicted today? No, it will evolve with time to suit the business and regulatory climate. If companies don't dream, then new products and services never happen.

Stay tuned.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | April 30, 2017 9:36 AM    Report this comment

The main difference between Uber ground and Uber air is that they did not have to invent the automobile first. They just used what was there to compete with traditional taxi services. Displacing traditional taxis was not difficult because, as Leo said, most of them are overpriced, and deliver a miserable customer experience. Climbing the hill to aerial transportation will be a lot harder. It will come, but predicting when will be hard due to the technical and regulatory issues involved. Probably overseas first where the FAA is not the main roadblock.

Posted by: John McNamee | April 30, 2017 12:47 PM    Report this comment

Tom,
I'm not sure if "MultiCopter" technology is everything we would like it to be. Do a search for "Elon Musk doesn't like flying cars". In his latest interview he states:

"the main challenges with flying cars are that they'll be noisy and generate lots of wind because of the downward force required to keep them in the air. Plus, there's an anxiety factor."

Helicopters have a lot of moving parts that can go wrong. MultiCoper have multiple times more parts trying to come apart.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | April 30, 2017 1:53 PM    Report this comment

Klaus:

The duration of the noisy portion of the landing and takeoff events is very short - no idling intervals a la helicopters. Since American soldiers are unlikely to compel ridership at gunpoint, the anxiety that troubles you will be restricted to non-participants who find themselves proximate to flight operations. People use to be afraid of horseless carriages, too.

The tendency of transmissions, CV joints, and "flapping" rotor blades to attempt self-disassembly doesn't cause us to prohibit helicopter flight. Direct-drive electric thrusters are an order of magnitude less inclined to dissociate. Millions of DJI Phantoms bear witness to this. Sanguine? Yes, but justifiably so.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | April 30, 2017 5:09 PM    Report this comment

Merely creating the vehicles is only part of the problems faced.

Notwithstanding the ability of drone-type multicopters to land in small spaces, they still will need landing areas that are well protected from interfering vehicles & pedestrians and at least relatively free from trees, poles and power lines.. And if they are to be truly portal-to-portal transportation, they will need a LOT of them.

Given the current state of urban areas, where are these landing areas going to be? And before you give an airy handwave and say rooftops, consider that most building roofs are neither structurally set up for such things nor do they have the roof-to-ground access (elevators, etc.) needed to move the passengers to & from the roof. Still plenty of problems to be addressed.

Posted by: John Wilson | April 30, 2017 11:28 PM    Report this comment

Parking lots. Cul de sacs. Double-wide driveways. Front lawns. Most people don't live in Gotham-like concrete penal colonies. For those who do, there's always ground-bound transportation to a suitable area - which doesn't have to be the size of JFK or LGA, and which doesn't require the logistic ballet of conjoining 300 people and their belongings in a large mailing tube. One of the less-celebrated advantages that the electric light bulb had with respect to the candle was this: no matches required.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 1, 2017 5:45 AM    Report this comment

As a squall line approaches who (or what) will protect the alpha male who HAS to be at that meeting on the north side of town? At what velocity do winds aloft scuttle availability that day? Will 0 degrees Celsius be the no-go temperature for the battery pack or -5C? Will these even work in Denver when density altitude hits 8000'?

Weather kinda matters with this concept. With automobiles? Not so much...

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | May 1, 2017 7:06 AM    Report this comment

Landing spots revisited..."Parking lots. Cul de sacs. Double-wide driveways. Front lawns. Most people don't live in Gotham-like concrete penal colonies." True enough, but although there are vacant areas around my semi-rural skypark home, I own a second house in a very normal Burbank CA neighborhood, a house which can probably be considered an "average" dwelling environment in America. For that one and I'm still trying to visualize where & how you might be able to carve out enough safe and publically acceptable landing spots to make mass portal to portal transit by 'copter feasible.

Yes, it can be done; we can do anything if the motivating factors align and overpower the demotivating ones (did I create a word?) Just saying it's a non-trivial factor that hasn't received much attention in all the hoopla.

Posted by: John Wilson | May 1, 2017 7:56 AM    Report this comment

Ok, I'll be open-minded about it. But we just finished threads on the influence of NIMBY's closing or pressuring airports to alter aviation activity from potentially miles away. With these vehicles dodging under or over trees, power lines, kites, vehicles, children, down-drafting on my delicate roses - will a salve exist to placate their anxieties? No new NIMBY's with local influence to deal with now in this where's-the-demand aerial dance?

Most importantly, will the game be disrupted by airborne taxis flying over the dishes? :-O

The tech may be there, but the people are not, imo.

Posted by: Dave Miller | May 1, 2017 2:45 PM    Report this comment

People think that anything that THEY don't use is completely unnecessary - until THEY start to use it, at which point it becomes a God-given right. Let's see what happens when Amazon, FedEx, UPS, and Wal*Mart start making aerial deliveries. CVS and Walgreens, too. Can't object to timely delivery of life-saving medications, now can we? Camel's. Nose.

The count of package deliveries will exceed the count of people deliveries, by at least three orders of magnitude. NOMFS? (Not On My Front Steps?) We're going to see......

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 1, 2017 3:29 PM    Report this comment

Will deliveries be restricted to DAY/VFR/WINDS LESS THAN 10kts? No rain, no sleet, no snow?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 1, 2017 5:10 PM    Report this comment

"Let's see what happens when Amazon, FedEx, UPS, and Wal*Mart start making aerial deliveries. CVS and Walgreens, "

Getting your Advil delivered or your gadget batteries isn't even in the same universe as getting into an autonomously flown multi-rotor aircraft. If there's any consensus--and I'm not sure there is--people in the industry think the barrier to autonomous airliners will be the people, not the technology. And freight will happen first, people later. Twenty year time line, most people seem to think.

Increasingly, I think this is a case of tech zealots convincing themselves that a market exists merely because the tech can do the job, or soon will be able to do it. They have little feel for the human element. On the other hand, that's the essence of invention and innovation--imagining a market where others don't see it.

My bet is nothing other than entertaining demo projects for the next 10 years, then we'll see for people movers.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 1, 2017 7:12 PM    Report this comment

The Advil deliveries are like the frog in the slowly-heating water. They will accustom the populace to the ceasless comings and goings of autonomous aerial vehicles. Soon, the nature of the payloads won't matter; Advil, pharmacists - no one will care. Bombs... that would be another matter...

I vaguely remember asking, "who the hell would put a camera in a telephone?" Who, indeed?

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 1, 2017 7:41 PM    Report this comment

"Will deliveries be restricted to DAY/VFR/WINDS LESS THAN 10kts? No rain, no sleet, no snow?"

Since the robots don't know the diffetence between day or night; between VMC and IMC; there'd be no justification for any such restriction. Ibid with regard to rainfall. Surface wind operating limitations would be vehicle-type-specific. Ibid operation in icing conditions. Just keep in mind that human-based limitations - such as being able to see - don't necessarily apply to machines' sensing capabilities.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 2, 2017 4:38 AM    Report this comment

Mechanically, a multicopter is about as simple as you can get. Yes, in terms of power architecture and electronics they're complex, but a passenger-carrying electric multicopter (piloted or not) will probably have more moving parts in the cabin doors than in the entire power system.

Assuming battery technology can get where it needs to be, the big advantage of the electric multicopters (and other electric vehicles, for that matter) is in operational costs and reliability.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | May 2, 2017 4:48 AM    Report this comment

Don't see it myself. By the time you have put enough batteries in to lift one person, let alone two, the flight time tumbles to 10 minutes or less if you have any sort of reserve requirement.
Then there is the noise. Little toy drones make a hell of a racket, scale that up and you have a big problem. It is not easy to solve -- they have been trying to make quieter vacuum cleaners for years without success. And as others point out, there is the prop blast from trying to lift one or more people. Most people have never been near helicopters taking off and have no idea what it is like. Tiles will fly from roofs, cars will be blasted by gravel and before you can say ban, no town will allow them.

Posted by: John Patson | May 2, 2017 4:57 AM    Report this comment

Yars, your candle versus lightbulb analogy works pretty good here. Inventing the Uber-copter, like inventing the lightbulb is only half the story. While a candle was simple - only took one little match and it would work anywhere - the lightbulb required an entire infrastructure to operate. Without the generators, miles of wires, swicthes and sockets, the lightbulb was useless. That all took time, even after the lightbulb gave electrification its incentive to grow.

Inventing the Uber-copter will be the easy part. Getting the country ready for it to operate to its full potential will take time. The roofs of most high-rise buildings are not set up for landing pads. Most have cooling towers and HVAC equipment up there, or the tapered top floors allow no room at all. The Uber-copter has no real advantage if the closest landing pad is 10 blocks from your destination. Without dedicated landing zones, jousting with cars and pedestrians in parking lots is dangerous and impractical.

In the end, like always, economics will probably drive the process. Mass produced lightbulbs are cheap - Uber-copters never will be. Unless they can find a way to make it affordable to the masses, it will remain a play toy for the rich. And, we all know how the masses view our current play toys (i.e. airplanes).

Posted by: John McNamee | May 2, 2017 10:38 AM    Report this comment

"The Uber-copter has no real advantage if the closest landing pad is 10 blocks from your destination."

Sure it does, John - if it takes you to within 10 blocks of your destination that happens to be 400 miles away. SHORTENING your ride to the airport is like improving the candle; ELIMINATING the ride to the airport is like inventing the light bulb. THAT's the "killer app" for "flying cars:" no trip to the airport AT ALL. No TSA hassles; no getting bumped; no 20-minute-long boarding intervals; no middle seat between two un-showered sumo wrestlers.

It won't displace every airline passenger. Some trips are too distant. The service will be too pricey for some. But it will be a lot more convenient and a lot cheaper than chartering a G-5 is or ever will be. And it will be a lot cheaper than a $900k Cirrus SR-2x. No costs-of-ownership at all, and no pilot or medical certificates to obtain/maintain. True GA-for-the-masses.

I grew up programming mainframes. But I sure like my PC. And my smart phone. And so do the billions of non-programmers out there who use them every day.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 2, 2017 11:01 AM    Report this comment

The technology is indeed only one aspect of a successful business. It also requires marketing, customer service, and customers who are willing to pay for the product/service.

I can imagine that VTOL air taxis will have their greatest success in mega cities with terrible traffic problems like Mumbai or Dhaka, where wealthy people would pay to take a convenient service to avoid spending an hour or two or three stuck in traffic.

Such a business would require an entrepreneurial focus, a "cool" buzz around the service, convenience for the customers,and air vehicles that are less noisy and intrusive than helicopters.

(John - making play toys for the rich is a great way to make money these days.)

Posted by: Rollin Olson | May 2, 2017 12:03 PM    Report this comment

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