Uber is taking taxis to the skies and India is on its radar: All you need to know

By Elton Gomes

In an extraordinary attempt to revolutionise urban transport, ride-hailing company Uber is planning to introduce UberAir in the coming years. On Thursday, Uber announced that India has been shortlisted for the company’s air mobility solution. Along with India, Japan, France, Australia, and Brazil have been chosen, and UberAir will be launched in one city from these five countries. Dallas and Los Angeles are the other two cities named.

In 2017, Uber announced that it would be launching demonstrations of UberAir in Dallas-Fort Worth/Frisco Texas and Los Angeles by 2020, with trips officially starting by 2023.

“Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru are some of the most congested cities in the world, where travelling even a few kilometres can take over an hour. Uber Air offers tremendous potential to help create a transportation option that goes over congestion, instead of adding to it,” Uber said in a statement, IANS reported.

Eric Allison, head of Uber Aviation Programmes, said, “We are proud to host the first ever Uber Elevate Asia Pacific Expo. We are announcing a shortlist of five countries where Uber Air can immediately transform transportation and take our technology to new heights,” as per the IANS report.

In May 2018, Uber restarted its contest to select the first international city to launch UberAir. The move came after apparent delays in launching the service in Dubai. Uber has set a few suggestions in terms of which cities it will consider for the launch of UberAir.

How will Uber consider its launch cities?

According to a statement on Uber’s website, the company plans to consider “cities with a greater metropolitan area population in excess of 2 million people and a density of over 2,000 people per square mile.”

Ideal cities for UberAir would be “polycentric, with multiple dense nodes of development in an urban area, and face significant traffic congestion.” Additionally, cities should have stable and conducive environmental conditions that are suitable for aviation operations.

What is UberAir?

UberAir is Uber’s aerial taxi initiative, and it is said to be much cheaper than the cost of owning a car, on a per passenger, per mile basis. To launch UberAir, Uber will need flying cars and skyports for them to land on. To develop these, Uber will be relying on its aerospace partners.

Flying car concept

Uber unveiled its flying car concept at its annual Elevate conference held in Los Angeles. The company hopes to use aircraft to launch its aerial taxi service by 2023. The aircraft can be said to be a mix between a plane and a helicopter and has four stacked rotors along the spine. The tail of the aircraft also has a rotor, and if one rotor fails, the others will continue operating for a safe landing.

These aircrafts will be electrically powered, and Uber said that they will fly at an elevation of 1,000 to 2,000 feet. Uber proposed that each Skyport will be equipped to handle 200 takeoffs and landings every hour. The aerial taxis will be driven by humans initially, but will eventually fly autonomously.

How much will it cost?

TechCrunch reported that UberAir could cost $5.73 per passenger mile. Uber said that it could lower the cost to $1.86 per passenger mile before finalizing $0.44 per passenger mile. The report mentioned a study conducted by Uber that found that if UberAir were available currently, 700 million would use it.

Uber partners with NASA

In 2017, Uber signed a deal with NASA in order to develop a traffic system for its flying taxi project. At its Web Summit tech conference in Lisbon, Uber confirmed that it had signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA for the development of “unmanned traffic management.”

Later, in May 2018, Uber signed a second Space Act Agreement with NASA to develop models that will simulate urban air mobility services. This was an indication that Uber is interested in working closely with government regulators to initiate its project quickly. As per the agreement, Uber will provide NASA with details and data on its plans concerning aerial taxis. NASA will then use this information to simulate flights over Dallas-Fort Worth. In addition, the data will address scenarios involving air traffic, collision mitigation, and airspace management.

Other companies eyeing aerial taxis

Uber has left no stone unturned to get its flying taxi project off the ground, but it seems that the company already has some competition. US aircraft manufacturer Boeing said that it will be setting up a new internal division to tap into the growing market of unmanned flights. Boeing NeXt will work in tandem with external companies to build unmanned vehicles, resolve air traffic control, and help model infrastructure on the ground.

Rolls-Royce, the aircraft engine manufacturer, was the latest company to have plans for a flying taxi. The company said that its EVTOL (Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing) concept vehicle could carry five people at speeds of up to 250 mph for up to 500 miles.

Will Uber’s aerial taxi plan be feasible?

Writing for Forbes, Dan Reed has called Uber’s plans to launch air taxis “preposterous.” Pointing towards the issue of skyports, Reed writes that Uber’s aerial taxis won’t be able to show up on normal roads. What’ll add to the travel time will be driving to the nearest Skyport- which Reed says could be cumbersome, if it is at a distance. The Skyport could also be atop a tower, to which one may or may not have access to.

Reed cites another Forbes contributor Richard Aboulafia, who was asked about the concept of flying cars. Aboulafia said, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve seen in aviation since Eclipse.”

Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius