Uber Plans to Elevate its Services to the Skies

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Mia Pollini
Staff Writer

Transportation technology company Uber recently announced that, by 2020, Los Angeles will be one of the first cities to experience a new service called Uber Elevate. Uber also made an announcement in April 2017 that it plans to start making proprietary flying cars, which will be used for the new service.

Uber Elevate transport will rely on a network of small, autonomous, electric aircraft that take off and land vertically. The Vertical Take-off and Landing aircraft, or VTOL, currently do not exist. In fact, some experts suggest that both engineering and regulatory obstacles are going to put a damper on flying cars ever coming to fruition.  

Hurdles like developing new batteries, building launch platforms, managing noise pollution, and getting government approval to have autonomous vehicles flying over metropolitan areas are all serious challenges Uber will have to overcome.

Regardless, Uber remains optimistic. “It’s a perfect gathering of forces and skills to make this happen as fast as possible,” said Jeff Holden, Uber’s Chief Product Officer, in an interview with Bloomberg.

At Web Summit, an internet conference in Lisbon, Holden stated that Uber has signed a Space Act Agreement with The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), who will play a massive role in safely incorporating urban air transport into day-to-day city life.

According to the Space Act Agreement, a $376,000 contract between the two groups, NASA is going to head development of unmanned traffic management, or VTOL management. Uber’s contract with NASA hopes to solve the new issue of controlling hundreds or thousands of VTOLs over urban areas in an attempt to allow Uber Elevate services to work alongside existing air traffic control systems around busy airports.

“This collaboration makes a ton of sense in order to bring this to market as fast as possible,” Holden said in the interview with Bloomberg.

If the service does well, Uber predicts Uber Elevate fare will be so low that flying with Uber will be cheaper than owning a personal car. In the original white paper detailing the project, Uber paints a picture of this system that would allow trips from San Francisco’s Marina to downtown San Jose to take only 15 minutes, instead of two hours via car.

Unlike UberChopper, a luxury service that has been used in the past for transporting clients to special events like Coachella, Uber Elevate is designed to be an everyday commuter option for overly congested cities like Los Angeles.

LA is third in line behind Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai as pilot cities for the Uber Elevate service test in 2020. “It’s one of the most congested cities in the world today,” Holden said. “They essentially have no mass transit infrastructure. This type of approach allows us to very inexpensively deploy a mass transit method that actually doesn’t make traffic worse.”

Uber is also working with real estate developers Sandstone Properties in Los Angeles to build rooftop landing pads on skyscrapers to offer its uberAIR services. It plans to start offering services from locations near a downtown sports arena, the international airport, Santa Monica, and Sherman Oaks in suburban San Fernando Valley, the company said.

This announcement comes at a prime time for Uber, perhaps in order to distract from all of the company’s pitfalls this year. Throughout the year, there have been numerous claims from Uber riders that they’ve been assaulted, as well as Uber employees themselves urging investigation into public allegations of sexism and harassment within the company. In short, shiny flying cars are a better look for Uber compared to allegations which they haven’t dealt with yet.

Ultimately, with NASA now joining Uber’s efforts, there seems to be a decent amount of backing for Uber Elevate, with existing partners Embraer, Bell Helicopter, and Aurora, an aviation company recently acquired by Boeing, also working to make the futuristic dream of flying cars a reality. However, the likelihood of Uber Elevate truly taking off by 2020 seems somewhat far-fetched.