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Uber sort of enters the ‘flying car’ game with a 99-page white paper

It’s like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop blueprint except flying cars are already a thing.


In 2040, the roads will be occupied by self-driving cars. People will be shot through a series of tubes at 700 mph from city to city and, if Silicon Valley has its way, people will be hailing “flying cars” to avoid rush-hour traffic.

That’s the dream Uber’s Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden laid out in a 99-page white paper today: A future where Uber riders can hail a Jetsons-like vertical takeoff and landing aircraft from their phones (or whatever device we may be using at that point).

What is a VTOL aircraft? It’s a plane that uses propulsion to become airborne and land vertically (like a rocket).

Is Uber building them? No.

So what is this paper about? The ride-hail giant lays out what needs to be done for companies that want to build these VTOL planes.

Why? A couple of reasons: 1) So they can commercialize these planes for money; 2) So they can provide an alternative to car ownership that would ostensibly take cars off the road and funnel more users to their core business of car-hailing.

The company has been seriously researching the technology for quite some time, and it could be in use within a decade, Holden told Kara Swisher at the Nantucket Conference in September. The paper, which is very detailed, lays out the benefits of VTOL travel (less congestion, fewer emissions, may eventually be cheaper) and the many, many regulatory and logistical hurdles any company attempting to build and commercialize these aircrafts will come across.

It’s Uber’s — and by extension CEO Travis Kalanick’s — attempt at catalyzing companies with the ambition to create “air taxis” to start building. In exchange, Uber plans to deliver a clear market and demand for the vehicles when they’ve figured it out. It’s a paper in some ways akin to Elon Musk’s Hyperloop blueprint that spurred the creation of two private companies, Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Technologies, that are both working vigorously to make the idea a reality.

Except — yes, there is an exception — there are a number of companies already working on flying cars, as Holden admitted. In other words, this is not exactly revolutionary in the same way Hyperloop was. Airbus’ Silicon Valley subsidiary A³ recently unveiled its VTOL concept called Vahana and said it plans to have a working prototype by the end of 2017. Alphabet’s Larry Page has a “flying car” company called Zee.Aero that as of June had 150 employees.

So while Holden’s paper may not be creating an entirely new market for an unforeseen mode of transportation, it does have the potential to mobilize companies that have not yet begun their foray into flying cars but have the resources, engineering skills and ambitions to do it.

Uber is basically saying: If you build it, we will come (and we will help you commercialize your flying car).


But Holden, a former Groupon and Amazon executive, doesn’t leave these companies hanging. The paper dives deeply into everything from barriers to market, certification, regulatory hurdles, pilot training and noise issues (since the aircraft will be flying so low).

It’s not exactly scientific. Instead, the paper reads as a plea or a pitch to the chief business officers of Silicon Valley and beyond.

Here are some of the top points:

Who’s driving it: Pilots will initially fly the aircraft, but like all things that are born in Silicon Valley, eventually it will be automated. A huge barrier to getting people to agree to take Uber Elevate — the name of the service — over taking Uber X or UberPool is convincing them that it’s safe. In order to ensure these flying vehicles are safe, Holden argues, they will have to take the human error aspect out of the equation. So while they’ll be training pilots initially, the idea is the “flying taxis” will eventually be semi- and then fully automated.

“Over time it’s highly likely that VTOLs will become autonomous, though we expect that initial operations will require pilots. Utilizing pilots in the initial period permits a strategy of building up statistical proof for FAA certification while slowly increasing the level of automation.”

Autonomous technology in the air isn’t exactly new, either. Autopilot technology has been used for decades particularly because there are so few obstacles to navigate around in the air. But as it is for planes, weather will be a bigger factor than it is for cars.

“Compared to ground vehicles, the environment in which VTOL aircraft operate is far more open and uncluttered, except during takeoff and landing when operating in close proximity to the ground, buildings, and people.”

How much will it cost: Here are some of the numbers: At a low production rate of 12 units per year, it will cost $1.2 million a unit. For around 500 units a year, it will cost $600,000 and at 5,000 units a year it will cost $200,000 a pop. But aircraft production levels haven’t been that high since 1946.

“This post-WWII high production was a result of industry attempting to repurpose to civil markets, with a large number of pilots suddenly having been introduced to the market place. In the years after 1946 there was a sudden reduction in annual production and manufacturing rates have never again risen to 1946 levels.”

However, these VTOL aircraft will have a longer lifespan than ground vehicles, which are typically manufactured to travel 250,000 miles.

We assume a design life of 25-27k hours for the VTOL to permit 13 years of service with the 2080 hour/year utilization. This enables the vehicle to provide 400,000 miles of service each year and about 5 million miles of service life before the aircraft is salvaged at a residual value of 30%.

As for the operating costs, Holden assumes it will be $50,000 a year for a piloted VTOL and, when they become automated, companies will have to pay $60,000 per vehicle to add all the necessary technology.

For consumers, the cost of taking Uber Elevate will go down over time.

“Our analysis shows that in the long-term autonomous case, direct costs per vehicle mile will approach 50 cents per mile (equivalent to 35 cents per ground mile). We can expect that the price 100 for a 45-mile pool VTOL, which would replace a 60-mile automobile trip, could approach as low as $21 for the 15 minute journey.”

What’s next: Uber is going to be leveraging a lot of the relationships they have with local and city regulators as well as manufacturers and other community groups to discuss what needs to be done. They’ll also be hosting a summit on Elevate in early 2017.

“In the coming weeks and months, we plan to delve into the political, policy, infrastructural, and socio-economic issues that will need to be addressed. These will be important to sustainably and inclusively develop vehicles that meet sophisticated consumer demand and are able to operate safely, quietly and reliably in cities.”

But Uber — and willing partners — also have to work closely with the FAA to determine how to regulate these low-flying, short-haul aircraft. Here’s what that process will look like:

“ First the regulatory authority and the manufacturer have to agree on the certification basis. Then the regulator and the manufacturer must agree how to determine the compliance of the vehicle with the certification basis. Next, the manufacturer demonstrates the compliance of the vehicle to the standards accepted by the regulator to obtain type certification; this is an iterative process. Following type certification, manufacturing can begin while the manufacturer seeks a production certificate to demonstrate the capability of producing many copies of that aircraft to the same standards.”

This is developing...

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