Uber At OSH

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

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.   

Comments (36)

Uber's maybe-fantasy aside, I must commend you for "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."

That may the best sentence I've ever read in my entire life.

Posted by: Joshua Levinson | August 13, 2017 9:39 PM    Report this comment

ADS-B better not go away ... I have one sitting right here on my bench that I'm wiring up to see if I can beat the incentive deadline. 1090 prices are coming down, easy UAT solutions are imminent and the deadline is looming ... I think people are finally moving forward, albeit slowly.

Coming into Airventure on a city bus one day, I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me. He admitted that he wasn't a pilot but he did sound like a reasonably well-heeled business person who had a need for easy transportation. He starts telling me about how he saw some flying car, was smitten by it and actually bought one. He said he could really use an airplane which morphed into a ground vehicle so he took the plunge. He was gushing with happiness. I wanted to tell him to call his bank and cancel his check but ... I thought better of it and bit my tongue. It was HIS dream and I didn't need to burst his bubble so early in the process. But oh how he was "committed!" I wish him well ... he's gonna need all the wishes he can get.

Until someone finds an un un pentium mine, flying cars are nothing but a near term pipedream.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | August 14, 2017 5:20 AM    Report this comment

Larry, the nuclear-electric diesel hydrogen perverter engine will solve all those flying car issues, the golden age is yet to come!

Posted by: Richard Montague | August 14, 2017 7:24 AM    Report this comment

Electric propulsion and autonomy is coming. My sincere hope is that distributed propulsion yields the claimed benefits as well. It provides such design flexibility.

"I knew I was listening to someone whose skin hasn't been scabbed over by actually completing a cert project." speaks a depth of wisdom that few know. Your earnest and candid views are always appreciated.

Posted by: Buddy Sessoms | August 14, 2017 9:22 AM    Report this comment

What I find amusing is Uber's choice of Dallas. There is a lot of GA in Dallas compared to most places outside Florida, but there are also a LOT of thunderstorms and controlled airspace.

Let's say they build a VTOL that's more on the Diamond or even Boeing level of safety rather than the typical Cessna, Piper, Mooney level. In spite of being electric, it's got all the engineering and redundancy to take a hit and weather the sorts of storms that other planes do. Now, they are flying folks around the DFW area, and avoiding DFW itself because the controllers really don't care who they are as they aren't a big jet. They've become the new irritating source of blips.

They will get pushed into the worst sort of weather and that ups the chances of a fatality in a big way. Now they crash, and reasonable yet ignorant people will blame the whole thing on new fangled, electric, and unnecessary technology.

Bye bye, billions.

I'd find a spot with less thunderstorms and controlled airspace. Of course, I'm a nut that avoids flying on an airbus into DFW, but happily flies a Mooney into Addison. (Don't judge too harshly, if I could tell the airline captain to wait for better weather I'd feel better about the airbus).

Posted by: Eric Warren | August 14, 2017 11:28 AM    Report this comment

They do have a test site with fewer thunderstorms: Dubai. I imagine dust storms might be a little hard on those plastic props, but we shall see.

I think you're on to some marketing angle there, though. Uber Elevate: Your local source of irritating blips.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 14, 2017 11:58 AM    Report this comment

"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."

It is all about the idea... We are doing (past two years) seat fare charters. After starting the part 135 air-taxi first thing we discovered was single passenger demand. Rarely do we get groups larger than two so, we accommodate the single passenger Point to Point (any published public airports). Our business is growing rapid and profitable. It seems Flying over traffic jams is very popular.

I believe we have created the model that these billionaires only dream about. The concept has existed in Alaska for nearly a 100 years. The trick was to make it work in the highway covered lower 48.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | August 14, 2017 3:10 PM    Report this comment

Regarding the agony of Part 23 certification I tend to agree with you Paul, but remember there are rules for the regular folks and rules for the rich and famous. Don't underestimate the ability of government agencies to get all starry-eyed over the involvement of well-known and politically connected entities to help push things over the line; that's just an opinion of another hidebound cynic!

Posted by: A Richie | August 14, 2017 4:07 PM    Report this comment

"...and an understanding of the Aviation Dollar.". Nailed it. Expressivity at it's best Paul. Good read. Thanks.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 14, 2017 5:27 PM    Report this comment

Nobody gets "pushed" into weather. Not people; not machines.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | August 14, 2017 6:39 PM    Report this comment

Its easy to poke holes in new ideas with yesterdays or even todays reasoning, but at the peril of disrupted by tomorrows visionaries... I'm not saying it will be easy - it will be hard. Bodies and companies will left in the wake...
Parallel: The Ansari XPRIZE should have failed - instead it opened up the private spaceflight industry that we are seeing now with Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Blue Origin
Example of a daunting hurdle overcome: The FAA and OCST didnt really want to deal with ballistic trajectories of private spaceships in US Airspace. But competitors were planning to launch in other countries, so FAA head Marion Blakey said "lets do this". Nothing like a carrot and stick approach to motivate a bureaucracy.
Quote: All progress depends on unreasonable (wo)men - (GB Shaw I think)
Worth noting: Uber isnt talking about the tiny niche General aviation market. It is talking about the transportation market - which is magnitudes of order larger than the GA market. Capturing a small share of that pie with clean quiet helicopter replacement vehicles will be disruptive. Its not a matter of IF - its a matter of WHEN. Hopefully there will be enough of a GA market left for a few pilot flown eVTOL Personal Air Vehicles - that is an aircraft I'd like to fly!

Posted by: Erik Lindbergh | August 14, 2017 7:48 PM    Report this comment

Would you have told Lindbergh to stay safely on the ground at Roosevelt Field on May 20, 1927? Aviation has always involved some risks. Dreamers have a way of changing the world they live in, often for the better. The time to move on may be upon us.

Best regards,

Daniel Walton

Posted by: Daniel Walton | August 15, 2017 12:19 AM    Report this comment

The biggest delusions of all are not mentioned: batteries and noise.
Airbus's hyper-efficient, very smooth single engine, single pilot electric 'plane could only just manage a half hour hop across the channel with reserves a couple of years ago, and Sinus's promise of a hour of electric flight for trainers with a drop-out battery has proved a bit optimistic. Both need runways.
Renault spent EURO5 billion on electric cars, and in four years increased range by 30%, mainly through bigger batteries and software perks.
Telsa now has battery packs which weigh close to 1.5 tonnes. It seems unlikely that there is another great leap forward, like the switch from lead/acid to lithium-ion, in the near future, so these no-runway rotor-craft will likely be single person for some time to come.
Uber is urban -- try to find a ride in a rural area and you will see what I mean.
Every rotary "drone" and a good many of the air-craft shaped ones I have seen make a hell of a racket. It comes from both the hair-dryer motors they use and the props. Scale it up and rotary drones will be noisier than a helicopter. (For aircraft shapes the opposite is true, especially is they use ducted props.) Residents near these "nodes" will not be amused.

Posted by: John Patson | August 15, 2017 4:02 AM    Report this comment

"Nobody gets "pushed" into weather. Not people; not machines."

I disagree. There are countless examples of pilots flying in to strong storms, either because ATC was being "helpful" in letting them know the last person flew through it without an issue, or because their radar doesn't have the most current information and a slightly-timid pilot is encouraged by a more assertive controller to fly the current heading. In the days before data-link weather, I've even gotten "pushed" closer to--and through--weather that I probably wouldn't have flown near if I had more accurate data in the cockpit.

Even an autonomous system will need to be able to be controlled in some way by ATC (assuming autonomous manned flights do happen, it will mix in with manned flights, at least for some time), and unless they have both on-board radar and data-link weather and an intelligent algorithm to combine the two for an accurate representation of the weather, they too may inadvertently fly into storms.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | August 15, 2017 7:28 AM    Report this comment

There's a big difference between wandering into weather and being "pushed" into it. If YOU'RE the "pushee," then someone ELSE is doing the "pushing." That's an abrogation of command authority.
I'm not splitting hairs, here. Command authority is central to operating an aircraft - whether by a human pilot or by an autonomous machine. ATC doesn't fly airplanes - for good reason.
And rules-based decisions always will be superior to "winging it."
"I think I can" is best left to The Little Engine that Could.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | August 15, 2017 9:21 AM    Report this comment

All arguments aside, I don't know if Uber can make the idea work, but it will be fun to watch them try.

Oh, and I love the bacon and eggs analogy. I might borrow it.

Posted by: John McNamee | August 15, 2017 11:21 AM    Report this comment

John McNamee, I agree. I think that the idea is impractical and dreamy. 2020 will tell.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 15, 2017 1:04 PM    Report this comment

John says "The biggest delusions of all are not mentioned: batteries and noise."

Bingo. For this business model to work the flights have to be from and to most anywhere, not just between airports. They need to serve urban environments, because that's where the traffic is. The general public won't stand for the noise and dust storms from people-carrying rotorcraft landing on random street corners. And if it's just a few designated urban helipads they won't support enough traffic to make the whole thing worthwhile.

Posted by: Andy Goldstein | August 15, 2017 8:04 PM    Report this comment

In 10 years we will look back at this naysaying with giggly nostalgia...

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | August 16, 2017 8:34 AM    Report this comment

The way of the future.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 16, 2017 10:33 AM    Report this comment

I'm not going to get in a semantic discussion with you. I don't know your agenda on this, but I think you made a mistake arguing over "pushed". If my terminology offended, then I apologize, but I'm not backing off my point one bit.

There are the lines that ATC shares with us and quite obviously many that they don't where for reasons of disdain for our skills or character we are not allowed to go. Exceptions are not made for walls of nasty weather, and as a student pilot I was sent into a thunderstorm at night in order to prevent my use of one corner of class b space never used by an airliner ever (not hyperbole either). So describe it however you like, but those lines often create unnecessary risks for us bug smashers (especially when combined with controllers not used to GA traffic).

Use whatever verb you prefer, but weather and ATC and urban and young pilots and passengers going places is a bad mix for a start up.

I laughed today reading about how the airlines would change things to suit their needs. If you fly in a city with more than one airport with airline traffic, you have got to know that ship sailed long ago. And what's really frustrating is that we all forget about it because it's the norm. We in GA quite rightly go along with policies and procedures for the safety of jets packed with hundreds of people and the efficiency of managing it all. We only get loud when the bill gets out of hand (see ADS-B).

We've all been second class citizens in the sky for decades now, and it's not good enough for them. It's all designed and run for them and we get to use our sky so long as we do the work to fit in.

Posted by: Eric Warren | August 16, 2017 10:44 AM    Report this comment

I now see your "command authority " comments.

While I appreciate your agenda, that's precisely a semantic argument, and respectfully, it's a knee jerk one that makes no difference to my point.

Posted by: Eric Warren | August 16, 2017 11:07 AM    Report this comment

Yes, Eric, Tom has interpreted your comment in a way you did not intend. Sheesh. Talk about turning a good point into a self-indulgent little hissy fit......

Maybe another way to say it is that, in bad weather, the Uber flights will be refused a clearance, or at least a decent clearance. I thought your point was clear.

The FAA is not at all ready for the explosion in flight operations that will result from automation. Nor will it ever be. Bureaucratic sinecures make progress in this realm impossible.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | August 16, 2017 10:36 PM    Report this comment

It's a pet peeve. And I don't think the term hissy fit has any place in civil conversation.

you think they can wait for clearances and make their business plan work? No. If so, they can quit now. They need VFR operations when appropriate. Otherwise, why fly? You'll be later than driving.

It takes 30 minutes to get a clearance around class b here.

Posted by: Eric Warren | August 16, 2017 11:10 PM    Report this comment

This on-demand urban air taxi concept is growing into a pet peeve of mine with a potential of developing into a cluster hizzy fit. Therefore, to placate my life, I choose to side with those that believe that the concept is flawed, impractical, expensive and nonsensical. I predict that it ain't gonna happen!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 17, 2017 7:07 AM    Report this comment

Based exclusively upon published statements made by Uber and other would-be providers of transportation OR equipment, I don't see any assertions that any of this proposed low-passenger-count on-demand aerial transportation will offer the nearly-all-weather travel capabilities of Part 121 airline service.
That reality is no different from what prevails today in Part 135 service.
Figures don't lie, but liers often figure.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | August 17, 2017 10:24 AM    Report this comment

"you think they can wait for clearances and make their business plan work? No."

I wonder how that might change if the elephant known as ATC privatization walks in. Will this service (as far as ATC considerations go) be classified as "general aviation" and have the minority representation, or will it be classified similar to Part 135?

One possibility that privatization could bring is providing expedited clearances for autonomous flying vehicles, since theoretically more of them could fly at the same time and generate more revenue for ATC Inc. I suppose that could happen with FAA ATC too, but there's no incentive for them to move at any speed toward doing that, especially since these are supposed to be electric vehicles, so no fuel tax to fund ATC. But turn it into a profit motive...

Posted by: Gary Baluha | August 17, 2017 10:50 AM    Report this comment

This "flying door-to-door" concept is very possible mechanically now. After following the direction of this blog, we fall back on "Air Traffic Control".

How do we prevent mid-air collisions if everyone buys a small helicopter tomorrow? The helicopter industry is closer everyday to digital stabilization. Once helicopters are as easy to fly as any high-end drone then everyone with money will buy one. After 10,000 units sell in a year the price will drop and the next year even more will be sold... How do we NOT fly into each other?

Posted by: Klaus Marx | August 17, 2017 11:15 AM    Report this comment

"How do we prevent mid-air collisions if everyone buys a small helicopter tomorrow?"

Even with SAS, I don't see that happening any time soon. Helicopters are still speed-limited compared to even simple 4-seat fixed-wing aircraft like a Cherokee, unless you get in to more complicated setups like counter-rotating blades, etc. Range is also limited, though I suppose for an Uber-like situation, that doesn't matter as much. But I can't see cities and towns allowing helicopter-like vehicles flying all over the place, since the noise and wind would be major nuisances. Not to mention the hazard of rotating blades (even if they are cowled/ducted).

That's just as likely as the 180-knot 4-seat fixed-wing for $80k.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | August 17, 2017 12:18 PM    Report this comment

"How do we NOT fly into each other?"
Sense-and-avoid. It's even easier when STOP (hover) is an option.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | August 17, 2017 12:42 PM    Report this comment

At some point, the rules must change to reflect the need for more efficiency and better tech. The rules of physics and economics will still prevent everyone from flying all the time anyway.

The idea that privatization results in a new organization that will be much better at progress is overblown. The only benefit would really be from new organization and new energy. We could get that from Congress and the Executive doing their jobs. Otherwise, it will be much the same as it is now because a semi private institution without competition and run by committee doesn't get you something that looks like Apple. It gets you something that looks like Amtrak or the USPS.

As I see Uber's vision, they will either start out being VFR or they won't start out being on demand at all. But Uber is all about on demand. I need to try to dig deeper into their plan I suppose.

Posted by: Eric Warren | August 17, 2017 1:12 PM    Report this comment

The on-demand, personal a/c "taxi" service seems to be a natural extension of the ADS-B air traffic self-sorting and self-deconflicting concept. Unless ADS-B develops to match that (original NASA?) vision, the "Uber of the air" concept seems very limited and highly unlikely to actually exist/operate. Applying the self-deconflicting approach would allow all the low altitude operations that the personal transport concept requires, yet separating them from all of the longer trip operations. Local rotorwing traffic would have to fully participate in the deconfliction scheme too.

In short, the regulations top operate the "Uber of the air" concept don't exist and ATC technology to actualize it are not operational today.

If history is any lesson, the technology will be amply demonstrated before the regulations catch up. Plus there is the problem of regulatory capture: the already existing operations regulated by the FAA who don't want to adapt the the new technologies will be vocal roadblocks (e.g. all helicopter operators would squawk like crazy; the law enforcement and medevac constituencies would definitely find receptive members of Congress for their scare scenarios; the political roadblocks to the wholesale changes of the ATC and air operations system that this Uber scheme requires are manifold. That alone makes the chances of this thing working roughly zero).

Posted by: DON HUDDLER | August 19, 2017 9:34 AM    Report this comment

I guess it's necessary to point out that "sense-and-avoid" does NOT require any cooperation or participation by ATC.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | August 19, 2017 10:19 AM    Report this comment

"I guess it's necessary to point out that "sense-and-avoid" does NOT require any cooperation or participation by ATC."

Tom, many large cities have dozens of helicopters operating at a given time and they still have mid-airs. Try to imagine thousands of helicopters in the same city airspace. How do you get a visual on the aircraft below or above yours ascending, descending or changing direction?

When you start thinking about hundreds of vehicles sharing a cubic mile airspace and each one with it's own destination in mind... It's time to study the pigeons, seagulls, ducks and even a bee hive to appreciate our challenge ahead.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | August 19, 2017 1:29 PM    Report this comment

You're conflating "sense-and-avoid" with "see-and-avoid." The latter is limited by human eyeballs; the former is not.
Add in position-sharing AND intention-sharing (ADS-B or LTE-based), and you've got a pretty good foundation for automated conflict resolution.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | August 19, 2017 5:57 PM    Report this comment

I don't see sense and avoid being the major technical hurdle to Uber's success. Battery life (i.e. range), landing access and vehicle cost will be the major stumbling blocks.

Posted by: John McNamee | August 20, 2017 1:34 PM    Report this comment

Add your comments

Log In

You must be logged in to comment

Forgot password?


Enter your information below to begin your FREE registration