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Uber wants to sell a flying car service in five years — but we don’t know if the tech (or the law) will happen by then

The company gathered major industry players at its second summit to call them to action and help accelerate the movement toward this aerial future.

A photo of a prototype of Uber’s vision for the future of unmanned flying cars Uber

At a gathering of industry experts, aviation regulators and potential partners this week in Los Angeles, Uber painted a vision for its lofty ambition of creating a commercial network of flying cars.

The company wants to begin testing its flying cars in 2020 — that’s two years away — and have a network up and running in some places by 2023. In other words, Uber thinks it will be ready to enable users to hail a vertical take off and landing vehicle in five years.

The problem with that timeline is that parts of the rest of the industry and certainly regulations have yet to catch up.

Federal regulators said that timeline may not be “too ambitious,” but they wouldn’t yet commit to it because they have “zero tolerance” for any degradations in safety.

The current head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Dan Elwell, told Recode he had yet to personally discuss regulating these flying cars with Uber. But he cautioned that the public has a much higher expectation for safety for aerial vehicles than cars.

Throughout Uber’s second flying car summit, some industry experts — some of whom are partners with Uber — also outlined some of the difficulties in producing these vehicles.

It’s “orders of magnitude more difficult” than producing a ground vehicle, according to CEO of Icon Aircraft, Kirk Hawkins. That’s partly because a failure of anything from the hardware to the battery to the autonomous software could result in the vehicle plummeting.

“Be very careful about compounding optimism,” he said onstage. “[It] can quickly give you divergent realities.”

GIF of Uber’s flying car

John Langford, the CEO of Aurora, which was recently acquired by Boeing, expressed more confidence in Uber’s timeline than Hawkins but raised some questions about the company’s projected economics, arguing that it would be hard to bring down the cost of a flight on one of these eVTOL aircrafts if there’s a pilot.

“The taking the human out of the cockpit and making these certifiable autonomous operations is absolutely key to the economics,” Lanford said onstage at Uber’s event. “There were numbers put up this morning that show you could have an economic model that worked for the pilot, but let’s say we don’t necessarily agree on those numbers.”

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi addressed that and said the company is willing to incur losses in the short term as it develops autonomous technology safe enough to operate these vehicles.

The conference was as much about Uber calling the industry to action as it was to give the industry — and regulators — tools that could help accelerate the path to market.

“It is to make things go faster,” the new head of Uber’s battery efforts Celina Mikolajczak told Recode. “Aircrafts are a little further out. We want to make sure this is focused on ... It’s a little difficult to expect the industry to focus on something five years out when there’s so much activity on things they could sell today.”

Uber isn’t building the vehicle or the charging infrastructure or the ports where these vehicles are expected to take off and land. With the exception of the design for the batteries, Uber’s biggest involvement is building out the network — part of its Elevate division — and that network is nothing without all the other pieces.

That helps to explain why Uber is partnering with so many of these players in what amounts to a data-sharing relationship. The company announced research partnerships with NASA and the U.S. Army as well as with aircraft manufacturers, and even created its own concept for what a flying car could be with the intention of letting other players implement some parts of those designs into their own vehicles.

By Uber’s own admission, it has proposed an aggressive timeline, but it’s based on some of the company’s conversations with its manufacturing and other partners, the head of Elevate Eric Allison told Recode. Allison, who joined Uber in March, also said that while the company was on track to meet that timeline, they would not launch anything unless it was safe enough.

But that’s why the summit was so important for the company.

A photo of a prototype of Uber’s vision of unmanned flying cars Uber

This all comes at a time when Uber is attempting to whittle down its losses, become more efficient and go public in 2019. But working on flying cars is important to the Uber narrative, according to Uber COO Barney Harford.

“I think being able to demonstrate [to investors] that we are a company that is able to deliver multiple growth engines and is able to incubate and execute upon a few different opportunities, I think that’s a really important story,” Harford told Recode.

For Harford, Elevate isn’t the biggest priority, he said. But the company feels confident enough in the growth of its core businesses to invest in these forward-looking opportunities.

“For the Elevate team it is the absolute No. 1 priority,” he said. “For me as COO it’s not the No. 1 priority. I’m more focused on the operating businesses we’re in today.”

“The great news for our business, when we look at our rides business there are a bunch of markets that are already profitable [and] we’re able to deploy the profits from those profit pools to invest in other areas,” he continued. “Obviously in aggregate we’re investing at this stage, but we feel really good about the [growth trajectory the] rides business is on and the trajectory that Eats is on as we think about the company evolution [and] prepare to go public.”

Flying cars also fit into Uber’s ambition to be the platform for all types of transportation, which it has already taken the initial steps of developing.

Uber’s Elevate program has also certainly been a boon for recruiting big names in engineering. In the year since Uber first announced its ambitions for flying cars, the company has attracted big names to its eVTOL effort. In addition to Allison who was poached from Larry Page’s flying car startup Zee Aero, and Mikolajczak who was a senior battery engineer, the company previously hired NASA’s Mark Moore, to name a few.

“Uber came to me and said, ‘Flying cars,’ and I said, ‘You guys are nuts,’” Mikolajczak told Recode. “I talked to Mark Moore and I realized he wasn’t nuts. We could do this. This is the science fiction that I read about that I enjoyed so much that inspired me. ... The chance to do something that inspired me as a kid, I mean, who gets that?”

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