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How Close Are We to Flying Taxis, Really?

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 6/12/2019 Meredith Carey

a small boat in a body of water with a city in the background: A rendering of an eVTOL flying in Melbourne. © Courtesy Uber A rendering of an eVTOL flying in Melbourne. By 2023, you’ll be zipping from Los Angeles’s Long Beach to Santa Monica, from downtown Dallas to Fort Worth’s stockyards, or from central Melbourne to suburban Geelong in minutes, zooming at 150 mph or so over trafficked highways in a flying taxi—if Uber has its way. The high-tech dream will happen in one of their electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, which take off and land like a helicopter but conserve energy by gliding like an airplane once they’re in the air, and should cost the same price per mile as an Uber Black ride. One day, Uber hopes that “it will be more economically rational for you to fly than it will be for you to drive,” says Eric Allison, head of Uber’s Elevate flying taxi program. But what can we really expect in 2023? That fantasy might not quite be reality—but actual flying taxis aren’t out of the question.

Since it launched Uber Elevate in 2016, the company has been touting Tron-like renderings of the electric flying taxi concepts pitched by its partners, like Embraer, Bell, Boeing’s Aurora, and more. Some of them have fan-like propellers, others look remarkably like helicopters, and one has been designed with wheelchair users in mind. Yesterday, at its annual Elevate conference, the company showcased its designs for the aircraft interiors, with seats angled for maximum views and high-tech fabric that makes sliding across the row even easier.

Renderings of Skyports, spread throughout the initial test cities of Los Angeles, Dallas, and Melbourne, show hundreds of eVTOL aircraft taking off and landing on automated elevators that bring passengers down to disembark closer to ground level. They’re urban utopias that would fit into the same futuristic vision that you’ll see in Singapore’s Changi airport today.

In actuality, the first generation of Uber’s flying taxis will likely look more like electric, or even hybrid, helicopter-like aircraft taking off and landing on parking garage roofs that have been retrofitted with landing pads and Uber lounges—rather than new, glass-clad builds. That is, as soon as the flying vehicles actually get approved.

eVTOL aircraft are already running tests, like hovering for less than a minute and landing, and Uber has intentions of running test flights by late next year. But everyone will still have to wait on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to certify the flying machines. And the FAA isn’t rushing to put flying taxis in the sky—for good reason.

“In the past 10 years, we’ve had more than 90 million commercial flights in the NAS [National Airspace System], carrying more than seven billion people—with one fatality,” says Daniel Ellwell, the FAA’s acting administrator. “That’s a safety record that’s hard to get your mind around in any human endeavor, much less one where you’re carrying humans in highly advanced aerospace vehicle.”

Adding those 150-mph flying taxis to that industry will take time. “I put on my FAA regulatory hat and I got a whole new bucket of stuff to worry about,” says Ellwell. "I see car-sized vehicles with multiple rotors hanging over dense urban populations. We have to ensure that safety is paramount.”

So, relatively patiently, Uber and its partners are cooperating with the federal agency to push things forward as quickly as possible, while keeping safety at top of mind. “The FAA is working as fast as it can,” says Kate Fraser, Uber’s head of policy for aviation. “They realize that they have to address [eVTOL aircraft] and they have to do something [to regulate them] or they’ll be so far behind. The U.S. will lose leadership if we don’t stay on top of this urban aviation system.”

Uber's eVTOL aircraft. © Courtesy Uber Uber's eVTOL aircraft.

That said, 2023 is still a feasible timeline for the first commercial flights, according to Fraser. “This ecosystem is evolving to the point that this will happen,” she says.

Uber is far from the only company working on eVTOL aircraft. As we’ve previously reported, companies like Rolls-Royce and Airbus and people like Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet, Google's parent company, are working on prototypes of their own. But Uber thinks its current driving business gives it a leg up, as the only company with the infrastructure to make flying taxis work and the customers to fill them in the near future. And that’s where helicopters come in.

Because Uber already has data on our travel habits—when we’re traveling, where we’re going, how long it’s taking us—from existing Black, X, and Pool rides, it can drive consistent passengers to choose the flying option, according to Stan Swaintek, Uber Elevate’s director of operations. And that’s exactly what it plans to test with Uber Copter, which in July will ferry travelers from downtown Manhattan to JFK. Uber thinks it’ll have plenty of interest, since it’s already a busy route. “On a busy day, there are 10,000 riders who depend on Uber for transport between JFK and Manhattan,” says Swaintek. “Uber Copter, which takes eight minutes, can save some of those riders an hour of their time.”

With this data, the app will be able to decide what time of day to make service available, which routes to prioritize, and which riders, based on their location, are best served with aerial ride sharing, so that no one is left waiting around in the helicopter lounge in downtown Manhattan and every helicopter is running at capacity. And adding Uber’s software into the mix isn’t as high a risk as, say, manufacturing a brand new mode of transportation. “The technology behind the scenes [of Uber Copter] is new, but the aircraft, the infrastructure, and the flight standards are not,” says Swaintek. (Charter company Blade also offers by-the-seat rides from Manhattan to JFK airport, but doesn’t provide transport to the helicopter pad.)

Launching Uber Copter is the first step towards the “multi-modal” universe Uber and other similar companies like Lyft are striving for. It means that your journey from a car to a helicopter (or flying taxi someday), back to car, or electric bike, or public transport, is seamless. It’s also, in theory, mapped and ticketed in a single app.

It’s the real world system that the company needs to figure out before it can possibly launch and continuously fill four-seat flying taxis in just four years. Even if everything goes according to plan, Uber’s eVTOLs may take off in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne—but that’s still several steps away from The Jetsons future the company is touting.

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