What’s the Possibility of Flying Taxis Ever Taking Off?

In what sounds like the most laughable of all of Uber’s crazy ideas… the flying taxi might actually be the most likely to succeed.

Uber has really reached out lately and grabbed pretty much anything with wheels on it.  uberBIKES made possible with Uber’s purchase of dockless bike company Jump.  Uber has just reached an agreement with Lime the dockless electric scooter company.  They of course have plans to put self-driving cars on the road.

And within the last year or so there has been talk that they’re working on developing a flying Uber!  On the surface this probably seems to least likely to come about or be a success.  But, beneath the surface there are some serious players involved in this area, including NASA, Boeing and Airbus, among other big names.

Not only are big names behind it but in previously unreported news, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued experimental airworthiness certificates.

Lending these aircraft even more credibility is the fact that two self-flying vehicle firms received $2 million last year from the Pentagon.  Google’s co-founder Larry Page is bankrolling a startup called Kitty Hawk, and another startup called Joby closed a fresh funding round in February raising $100 million.

Of all the companies involved in this race, the relatively unknowns, Kitty Hawk and Joby are the farthest along.

Why It’s Not as Crazy as It Sounds

Uber is developing it’s so-called “crazy” idea with the US Army.  So, maybe it’s not that crazy after all!  In fact, it looks like the “flying taxi” could become a reality before the self-driving car is fully realized.

The reason all this isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds is because all the technical components are already in place.  All the science all the knowledge and all the pieces that will be necessary for this to work, already exist.  It’s just a matter of rearranging components and pieces and putting them back together in a slightly different form.

One of the biggest challenges is how to make these as quiet as possible.  That’s because Uber wants to fly them in heavily populated urban areas.  If they’re too noisy, local governments will surely ban them.  So, Uber’s big challenge is how to make them absolutely as silent as possible.

According to Reuters, “Achieving ultra-low noise is one of the critical obstacles” to deploying aerial taxis in urban areas, Rob McDonald, head of vehicle engineering for Uber Elevate, the company’s flying car operation, said in an interview.

Reuters also reported that, “Uber and the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering command said… They expect to spend $1 million to develop and test prototypes for a rotor system that would be used on a vertical take-off and landing vehicle.

The system would have two rotors stacked on top of each other, rotating in the same direction under the command of sophisticated software. This approach, which Uber and the Army said had not been deployed in a production aircraft, could lead to quieter operation than conventional stacked rotor systems.”

Instead of gas powered engines, these new Uber aircraft will use electric motors.  That will eliminate all the noise that aircraft engines typically make.  However, it will not eliminate the noise from the rotor blades beating the air.

In helicopters, that is the what produces the majority of the noise.  It’s easy to see why cities would ban these aircraft if they make as much noise as a helicopter and plan to fly back and forth across cities all day long.  That’s why all the work is being done to find a software-based solution.

Autonomous Flying Vehicles

Uber’s end goal is to make these flight vehicles autonomous, where no on board pilot is necessary.  People have scoffed at this, wondering how could they possibly be contemplating autonomous flying vehicles when they can’t even get autonomous cars working right?

The reality is that it is actually easier to make flight autonomous than it is driving.  Something most people don’t realize is that with flight there are actually far fewer variables than there are with driving.

With driving, every leaf or piece of trash on the road becomes a variable the computer has to worry about.  Is it a bag of trash, or is it a rock?  The computer has to be programmed to process and correctly answer this question.

It’s not easy for a computer to tell the difference.  Every situation where a person might jump out in front of a car has to be programmed into the computers.  And every inch of millions of road miles have to be correctly programmed into the computers for them to work properly.  And every inch has to be constantly updated every time there’s a change to the road.

There are literally billions of variables that have to be programmed in – which is why this is all taking so long.  And it’s why even after testing autonomous vehicles over several million miles – they are still a long ways away from being ready.

With flight, although it seems more complicated, it’s actually simpler.  In the popular imagination, we look at a airplane’s cockpit and see that it is much more complicated than a car and we reason that flight must be much more complicated as well! Well, all those instruments basically only do a handful of tasks.

The two major things they do is navigate to the plane’s destination and keep the plane stable and level during flight.  That’s really all they do, which makes it a lot simpler for a computer to handle than driving is.

Autonomous flight computers won’t have to worry about figuring out if a cloud is a rock!  They won’t have to worry about programming in the possibilities of pedestrians jumping in front of the planes.

Flight navigation is relatively simple too.  When you’re flying form Point A to Point B, flight computers are already setup to pick up the waypoints in between.  These waypoints are “beacons” that send an electronic signal to the plane.  Or, today it can all be done by GPS.

Basically once a flight GPS is programmed with all the navigation data it needs, a plane can fly autonomously anywhere.  Planes have used autopilot systems for decades.  Those systems, even the older ones have no problem at all keeping the plane level and stable and they have no problem following navigation instructions.

Today, autopilot systems in planes handle everything except the take off and landing.  And they could handle that.  But we wisely know it’s still good to have a human pilot on board.

All this is to say that all the components for making these vehicles autonomous already exist and are in use today.  This will be the easiest part.

Air Traffic Congestion

Another problem that will have to be solved and that Uber is already working on is the problem of airspace congestion.  Today there are strict regulations and restrictions in place on just who can fly over large cities when.

Major airports are in what are known as Terminal Control Areas or Class B Airspace. TCAs regulate how high planes must fly over these major airports and their corresponding metropolitan areas.

The TCAs governing air traffic in most large cities require airplanes to fly at a certain altitude, usually 6,000 to 7,000 feet above ground level.  And small private planes are barred from flying into these areas unless they are equipped with special radios and beacons that identify them on air traffic controller’s radar scopes.  They must also carry equipment that automatically broadcasts their altitude to air traffic control.

New York City has long had a ban on any air traffic flying over Manhattan.  After several plane and helicopter crashes in Manhattan over many years, regulations were changed to disallow any flights overhead in Manhattan.  So, Uber would have to work out something with the FAA and the City of New York as well or their goal of flying taxis would never take off in the nation’s largest city.

With Uber’s flying taxis, the air traffic in and around major cities would be expected to increase dramatically.  And the altitude at which they fly would have to be much lower than what is allowed today.  That’s why they’re working on highly specialized software and with the FAA to come up with a workable framework that would make it possible for this many new aircraft to safely fly close in to cities and urban areas.

Market Demand for Flying Ubers

At first glance, it may not seem like the demand would be there.  But upon a deeper look it becomes much more appealing from a passenger’s point of view.

The thing that makes it most appealing is that Uber says they’re committed to not making this a service just for the super rich.  It will probably be more along the lines of affordable for the regular rich and the almost rich!

Uber says they’d like to hold the price at about the level of what uberBLACK charges today, for their luxury line of cars.  uberBLACK is usually 2-3 times more expensive than uberX.  So, it is something everyone can afford… at least every now and then.

However, they have also stated elsewhere that the price will be close to the uberX price.  Hard to believe really!  But if they could it would definitely be a huge hit.

But when you start to think about how attractive a deal it would be to be able to get from one side of town to the other in 3-5 minutes when that trip today will take anywhere from 30-45 minutes in a car, you start to see the great appeal this will have.

Relatively short trips, like those from one part of town to the other could be relatively affordable even for those far lower on the economic scale than the near-rich.  At least they could afford to do it every now and then.  And when they’re looking at 45 minutes by car or 5 minutes by flying Uber people are going to be seriously tempted to take the flying Uber.

Or, imagine your daily commute from city center to your home in the suburbs.  It’s just 15 miles, but it can take up to 90 minutes during rush hour.  Imagine being able to complete that trip with a 6-minute 150 mph flight!  Of course you’d have to add the time it takes to get to the pad where the flights depart from.  And a little more time to get from the landing location to your home.  But that could be as little as 20-25 additional minutes.  Still getting you home an hour earlier than usual.

So, it seems the demand will be there.  Especially if they can make their goal of keeping the cost anywhere close to uberX prices.

Is This Really Going to Happen?

Apparently yes.  But not anytime soon.  There is still a lot to work out.  Especially all the necessary governmental regulations.  But Uber has announced that its goal is to start demo flights in 2020 in Dallas and Los Angeles.  That’s just around the corner.  But it’s a little further down the road to 2023 when they believe they’ll begin commercial operations.

There are also technologies that still need to be developed that aren’t fully developed yet.  This can’t happen, according to Uber, if those don’t come along as they’re expected to.

One example is battery technology.  Currently the amount of energy each pound of battery can hold today is not enough to make this idea feasible.  With today’s battery technology the batteries would add too much weight to the aircraft for it to be economically viable.  So battery technology has to improve before this can happen.

Other obstacles will be regulations and Air Traffic Control (ATC).  A whole new system of air traffic control will have to be developed and implemented before this can become a reality.

Basically, Uber is hoping they can come up with a software-based version of Visual Flight Rules and Instrument Flight Rules.  This would allow computers to handle all traffic separation automatically without burdening human controllers with this exponential growth in air traffic.  It is doable but there are a lot of things that will need to be moved around and reshuffled to make it work.  And a lot of different government entities from local to federal that will have to work together to make it happen.

How Will This Affect Uber Drivers

First it will not affect Uber drivers anywhere in the foreseeable future – of probably the next 5-10 years.

Uber believes that in the beginning flight trips will cost about what uberBLACK costs today.  But they believe over time as more and more of these vehicles are produced that the unit cost of production will get so slow that these trips could end up costing about the same as an uberX trip (as can be seen in the graphic above).

If and when that happens, drivers will still be needed, unless they have been fully replaced by autonomous vehicles already.  Because the uberFLY trips will not have the unlimited pickup and drop-off locations that ground-based transportation has.  That means people will tend to use it mainly for longer trips.

If it takes you 20 minutes to get to the pickup location and 5 minutes to wait for your flight to take off, you’re not going to use it for a trip that would be less than a half hour by car.  But people could be expected to use it for trips that would normally be more than 45 minutes by car.

If it works out that way, the sad reality for Uber drivers is, no more long trips.  Even airport trips will probably become a thing of the past.  In fact, they may be the first to go!  Imagine if passengers could take a 15 minute uberX ride to pick up a 10-minute flight to the airport!  They are not going to take cars to the airport anymore when those trips routinely take close to an hour in most cities.  So drivers can kiss those airport trips good-bye!

Speaking of whether Uber will still be using human drivers at that point, as we discussed above, flight autonomy is much easier to accomplish than driving autonomy is.  These flight vehicles could well become autonomous before cars do.  So, while no pilot will be necessary, drivers probably still will be.

None of this is certain to happen.  We’re guessing that it probably will happen, but it will be a very long time into the future before it does.