Uber Elevate: Pick A Fantasy


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.

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  1. Two issues that I NEVER hear discussed when it comes to these vehicles (unmanned or not) are weather and noise. In the rosy future where people and merchandise are effortlessly wafted over our heads, the noise of two, or most likely four or six rotors lifting maybe a thousand pounds into the air will be beyond irritating. Multiply that by tens or hundreds of vehicles in the air at the same time (especially in our Uber/Amazon-addicted neighborhood of Arlington, VA), and you will have a soul-crushing din that not even the best PR firms can hypnotize us into ignoring.
    Weather is also an issue. Besides swirling winds near the ground in an urban environment, rain and snow will play havoc with navigation systems just when they need to be the most reliable. A good number of people are afraid of flying in our safe transport aircraft piloted by trained professionals when the weather is bad, how are they going to feel when there’s no one at the controls and the wind is gusting 30 knots?
    I’m not against progress, but it seems to me that a lot of capital is being expended on coming up with complicated solutions to problems that can be addressed by a good mass-transportation policy (and just getting off your butt and walking).

  2. ” that most of the challenges will be in integrating them into a coherent transportation system and with ATC.”…this is the biggest challenge.

    Second biggest is an infrastructure that has limited to no real estate to pick up passengers and deliver them. Take a look at the roof tops of a city and/or industrial parks the next time you fly over them. And even if you could use a roof top or two, what about the poles, lights, power lines, flagpoles, maze of antennas, dishes, air conditioners, and all sorts of mechanical devices on top of most buildings.

    The very reasons that urban transportation is now over-saturated making any commute a frustrating nightmare, is the same reasons that will plague giving this over-population access to the skies dooming it to an eventual aerial version of rush hour.

    It’s one thing to have a helicopter service between JFK and Manhattan 5 times a day in a Sikorsky S76. Have that same route flown by the same type of helicopter 25-50 times a day and see what that does for ATC and within today’s infrastructure. Now multiply that by only three or so carriers and we will know well in advance of the next composite, carbon fiber, electrified wing thing, how all this will integrate within the urban sprawl.

    Any VTOL craft will have at the very least the same size and space demands of a S76 to haul more than 3 people at a time. And even a four place VTOL will be very close to the same footprint…or would that be “sky print”?. So, we already know what VTOL infrastructure space demands will be, including ATC’s ability to handle even more traffic than it does already by simply multiplying the use of the S76’s available today. I know, I know that does not play out well compared to the artist renderings and YouTube fantasy films.

    Plus, weather still exists even in the big cities.

    Agree with Paul, we are getting ringside seats for the next series of aerial evolution. However, I believe the VTOLs will come way before any practical application…and find out the expensive way, they will be a neat aerial gizmo with no practical urban place to go. VTOLs will be used, but not by Uber or anybody else for urban transportation relief.

    Geez, we are still trying to get ADS-B compliance within a 10 year span for 215,000 or so airplanes sprinkled all over the great vast land called the USA with limited success..and then add hundreds , if not thousands of VTOL’s in the mix? Mostly concentrated within the most saturated airspace on the planet. Think about that scene on the iPad!

    Too many folks in one place is simply too many folks for one place whether you use the sky or not.

  3. LOL. Paul only touched on public safety as it relates to “accidents”.
    Now imaging the problem facing public safety when a vast system of vehicles is created that can each carry 1000 pounds of anything, to any point within a city, above barriers yet too low to intercepted with an F16. At that point it should be obvious that all Federally mandated security fences around GA airports be taken down as being pointless.

  4. Any attempt by EVTOL manufacturers to reduce noise emission levels, however well-intention-ed and necessary, will in my opinion, be doomed to failure. Why?, because of a well-known phenomenon called sound wave interference. This happens when two or more sound waves from the same or different sources alternately add constructively or cancel destructively each other in your eardrums at the same time. This results in a variation in amplitude and frequency of the so-called “beat frequency” of the interference which is the difference in phase and/or frequency of the interfering sound pressure waves. Add to this the Doppler shift in frequency and/or phase due to moving EVTOLs, and you will experience an overhead con-cottony of mind-scrambling sounds seemingly coming from everywhere over the big city you once loved to walk in. Buildings make wonderful sound reflectors and these help produce the general din of the city. Now add a chaotic din of beating fan blade sound waves from hundreds of drones and EVTOLs…do we really want that ?

  5. It is feasible that swarm technology will enable high density flows of autonomous UAM vehicles, but they will never be compatible with piloted vehicles. Since the number of UAM users (passengers and freight) will far far outnumber the pilots, I predict that we will see a new type of airspace (Class H??) over cities where only UAM will be allowed.

  6. “Class H!” That oughta be reserved to the airspace ‘stolen’ from us under the guise of ADS-B required or stay out … as in the airspace above class B or C airspace where we currently can fly but not after Jan 1, 2020 without ADS-B. Well … maybe they could just call it class S? Then they’ve stolen the RVSM airspace and caused numerous airplanes that are otherwise airworthy to wind up in airplane junkyards. At some point, enough is enough. What’s wrong with using a Uber taxicab and calling it a day?

  7. Perhaps the aircraft themselves will eventually become a reality, but I can’t see the usage of them as Uber describes ever happening. For one, as others have pointed out, there’s the noise issue. Enough people moving next to an airport complain as it is, and I’m sure people who moved into an area not next to an airport will really complain when they have aircraft regularly flying by. But for another, there’s the issue of disk loading, and all of these concepts seem to be V-22-style tilt-rotors in one form or another. The smaller the rotor (or disk) size, the faster the velocity of air has to be to generate the same amount of lift. That’s why it’s always a conventional helicopter hoisting people up, since a large rotor disk has lower air velocity. But even then, that’s still a lot of downward air that blows things around. Regardless of the rotor configuration used, if the vehicle is 1000 pounds, you need 1000 pounds of lift, and that’s a lot of air. I just don’t see cities ever allowing the use of such transportation systems.


  8. While I am in general agreement with, or at least acknowledge the validity of, the litany of “why it won’t work” comments already posted, I do think it is probably not a solid requirement that the service(s) demonstrate the incredible safety record achieved by the Part 141 universe. More likely, if they can struggle through the introductory period they will only have to approximate the general record of automotive transport, or maybe even general aviation.

    The difference is the relative newsworthiness of an accident involving a car (or VTOL taxi) carrying three or four vs. an airliner carrying hundreds. A few thousand people dead a few at a time in a year’s worth of auto or GA crashes is ho-hum business as usual, while a single airline crash every few years killing 200 in one incident is presented to the public as an absolute disaster.