If that sounds ambitious, you possess a basic understanding of the challenges involved here. The kind of aircraft Uber envisions shuttling customers through the air—electric, with vertical takeoff and landing capability, and capable of flying 100 miles in just 40 minutes—don’t exist yet. Nor does the infrastructure to support them. The FAA, an agency not known for speed, must ensure these aircraft meet all federal safety regulations and figure out where and how they fit into a complex air traffic control system.
Instead of cracking those problems on its own, Uber plans to punt. It hopes to play the role of a catalyst, spurring manufacturers to build the aircraft, the FAA to figure out the regulations, and cities to wave them in. Company CEO Travis Kalanick apparently wants to play the role of Elon Musk, who came up with the idea for hyperloop and is letting everyone else figure out how to make it work. The reward for playing Kalanick’s game? Accessing Uber’s 55 million monthly active riders in nearly 600 cities worldwide.
And here’s the crazy part: Uber could make it happen. “I think 2020 is realistic for a vehicle that is not replacing an airplane but replacing a car,” says Richard Pat Anderson, director of the Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. A purely electric aircraft might remain elusive, but a serial hybrid setup—where the aircraft carries a fuel-burning turbine to keep the juice flowing, much like the Chevrolet Volt—could work.
At its “Uber Elevate” summit Tuesday, the company announced a series of partnerships to start figuring this out. It has joined real estate companies Hillwood Properties in Texas and Dubai Holding in the UAE to identify locations for “vertiports” and get them built. Chargepoint, which operates 34,000 electric vehicle charging spots in North America and Australia, will design, develop, and deploy the infrastructure needed to keep the aircraft going. In a white paper Uber published in October, the company estimated it would need 1,000 aircraft and 83 vertiports, with 12 charging spots apiece, to serve three or four cities.
More importantly, Uber has signed deals with five companies that are developing electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft: Pentagon-backed Aurora Flight Sciences, electric plane maker Pipistrel, Bell Helicopter, Embraer, and small plane maker Mooney. If they bow out or fail to deliver, others can take their place. Germany’s Lilium just proved its funky electric aircraft can fly. China’s eHang plans to launch people-carrying drones in Dubai this summer. And Google founder Larry Page just revealed his flying car prototype, though it looks more at home in Skymall than the sky.
As for the cities, no surprise Dubai is interested. The city’s general attitude towards tech is, “Looks shiny, we’re in!” It wants to equip firefighters with jet packs, and it will be home to one of the first hyperloop tracks. Flying cars clearly fit right in. But it doesn’t hold a monopoly on the future. Texas wants in, too.
“This program is revolutionary and future-oriented, which is why Fort Worth is a perfect partner to base the Elevate pilot,” Mayor Betsy Price said in an email. Just don’t expect the city to be doing much lifting. “The burden to overcoming the various hurdles (FAA, air traffic control…) will rest mostly on Uber in this exciting pilot.”
The players here have one big advantage. In recent months, the FAA has been more open to certifying new technologies,. That’s part of its consensus-based standards system, where the private market draws up the rules, and the FAA says yay or nay. “They’re trying to accelerate this,” says Anderson. But the agency can only move so fast. “Three years is optimistic.”
That doesn’t mean the runway’s clear just yet. Whoever operates these flying cars will need to negotiate already congested airspace. And then there’s the economic question: Can you build a novel kind of aircraft and keep it full of paying passengers without going broke?
Whatever the answers, Uber likely sees another benefit to the blue sky thinking: It’s a nice way to distract from all the problems it’s having on the ground, from its legal fight with Google’s Waymo to the latest accusation it keeps tabs on riders who have deleted its app. But hey, if Uber can finally get you that flying car, maybe you’ll be ready to forgive and fly.