Wait. What? These things aren’t flying cars. They just aren’t. Or are they?
This is the little argument I had with myself yesterday while covering the Uber Elevate Summit in Washington, D.C., via remote streaming. During his introduction, Nikhil Goel, Uber’s head of product for Elevate, referred to these new air taxis as flying cars. The first time he said it, I thought it was a slip of the tongue, but the revelation came the third time he used the same term.
What we have here is a divergent definition of what a car is. For those of us in aviation, a car is what you drive to the airport to fly an airplane. Driving and flying are disparate activities and for us, a flying car—say like the Terrafugia—are cars that fly or airplanes that drive. I think I’m on safe ground in saying that pilots are broadly skeptical of flying cars because none have proven commercially viable and they appear to be bad cars and marginal airplanes. That’s because even the cheapest cars do what they do well and the same is true of airplanes—if there were cheap airplanes, but that’s another rant.
So where does Goel get off calling these air taxis cars? Here’s how: To the Uberscenti, transportation is independent of means; it’s just moving people or things from A to B. EVTOLs are distinguishable from cars only in that they operate in the third dimension. They are merely service volume extenders. In autonomous eVTOL ecosystem of the future, transportation will be blind to the type of vehicle. Uber’s view is that data-driven dynamic pricing and efficiency will level everything.
Will it? Impossible to say at this juncture, but the argument is compelling. It will depend on demand density and a robust ground infrastructure. This is probably the bigger challenge than the flying vehicles themselves.
And speaking of the eVTOL vehicles, aerospace veterans may look at what Uber and its partner companies are doing and think these guys are clueless about the regulatory hurdles they face. Actually, I’d say the reverse is true. The conference spent quite some time considering the regulatory burden and how they might overcome it. They presented all the right talking heads saying all the right things. The awareness is there. The hard (and expensive) part will be the fine detail of actually certifying eVTOLs, not just listening to the FAA saying it’s sympathetic and trade associations cheering the agency’s new-found largesse.
Match These Numbers
A splash of cold reality came from Dan Elwell, acting FAA administrator. In a talk I’d call unusually frank for an administrator—acting or not—he let these numbers just sort of land on the stage with a thud: One fatality in 90 million flights. That’s the safety record U.S. airlines have achieved for most of the last decade.
And it is stunning. It’s a safety level of about 10-8 and it has been achieved through regulation, technology and pervasive analysis of safety-related data. By comparison, GA lives at 10-5, which is roughly a fatality per 100,000 hours. (Apples and oranges warning there, I’m conflating hours and flights, but you get the idea. When measuring with a crayon and cutting with an axe, it matters little.)
This is where I see a potential disconnect in air-taxi safety expectations. Uber expects its air vehicles to be certified under Part 23 and flown under Part 135, both regulations that are less stringent than the Part 25/Part 121 that have delivered a functionally zero airline fatality rate. Fair or not, urban air mobility will probably be judged by the same standard and the flying public that will use these aircraft won’t understand that a few accidents—maybe more than a few—will be the price to pay on the long march to an accident-free UAM industry.
While Uber and the companies developing these aircraft understand this—or seem to—I’m skeptical of any claim that they’ll get there out of the box. There are too many variables and too many unknowns; %$#& will happen. They do have some out-of-the-blocks advantages. The systems to collect and analyze operational data aren’t just in place, they form the very bedrock of what will become UAM. The FAA and airline industry had to learn that over decades and the price was paid in blood. Second, these vehicles don’t have automation slapped on as an afterthought—737 MAX, I’m looking at you—but baked into their basic DNA. Once the bugs are chased out, that’s a plus, in my view.
And The Award Goes To…
For coverage of dreamy artists’ conceptions, slick videos of aircraft that haven’t flown yet and futuristic ramblings about the brave new world of urban mobility, the award goes to … us.
Yes, in a blinding moment of self-awareness, I’ll concede we are reporting on things that don’t exist and might not for a while. But there’s a reason and here it is: I don’t know if this UAM idea is going to gel, either by Uber or anyone else. I have doubts about it.
But however they are put to use, the aircraft are coming. Distributed electric propulsion will make evolutionary, if not revolutionary, changes in the way we fly and this is right in the general aviation wheelhouse. You’re watching history about to be made and that’s why AVweb is all over it.