Uber Elevate, the newest project from the controversy-courting ride-share company, might be the brand’s biggest play yet—and execs are saying the plan is to roll it out in L.A. in about two years (two other cities are also in the works: Dallas and Dubai).
What’s Uber’s Plan?
Create a fleet of small, light-weight aircraft that can move around a network of private helipad-like landing and take-off sites called Skyports on building roofs, starting in DTLA, Sherman Oaks, Santa Monica, and near LAX, theoretically rolling out eventually to any flat surface willing to host one. The process of booking a personal aircraft would be similar to the existing Uber app, but with pre-scheduled departure times and routes (each aircraft can be shared by a small group of passengers).
If you’ve ever been stuck in a stressful traffic jam and wished you could just somehow zoom over it, that’s the impulse Uber wants to tap into. According to its numbers, an average car trip from LAX to the Staples Center can currently take 80 minutes and calling an UberAIR could cut that down to an estimated 27 minutes. If all goes according to plan, these flights would cost users about $20 each. (In São Paulo, where the wealthy frequently use helicopters to avoid the city’s infamous gridlock, Uber already offers chopper rides at about $63 each).
So How Do They Make This Happen?
To pull this off, The Verge reports that the company is investing in developing a custom electric “VTOL”—that stands for vertical take-off and landing—aircraft, which we haven’t even seen so much as a prototype of yet. Uber says they are planning to announce a manufacturing partner “in the future,” but likely candidates include Bell Helicopters (the makers of the military’s Osprey helicopters), jet-builder Embraer, and Slovenian light-aircraft manufacturer Pipistrel.
Regulators are also going to have to hammer out a whole new infrastructure for having all these planes whizzing around the sky. Uber is already collaborating with NASA on an existing project that could lead to a “next-generation air traffic control system,” but the details and timeline of that project, as well as if state and federal officials will adopt the recommendations, are still big, open questions.
Watch the video below, created by Aurora, one of the possible EVTOL builders, which gives an idea of the proposed concept.
Finding locations for Skyports seems to be the most resolved matter so far. Uber has already inked a partnership with real estate developer Hillwood for the first series of launch sites. Hillwood, founded in 1988 by Ross Perot Jr. (the son of the erstwhile presidential candidate with whom he shares a name) is among the largest development companies in the country, with ties to around 70 million square feet of real estate in 23 major U.S. markets.
Is This Going to Work?
That remains to be seen. Uber has access to a substantial well of resources to invest in technology and appears motivated to bring out a new “killer app” feature to stay in the game, given the cloud of negative P.R. that has been following the company in recent years. The L.A. Olympics have been mentioned as a target use-case for the service, so even if they miss the 2020 roll-out date, they may still aim for 2028.
Nonplussed by the whole thing is one Elon Musk, who is maybe slightly biased by working on his own, competing traffic-avoidance plan. In an interview with Bloomberg, Musk stated that, “Obviously, I like flying things, but it’s difficult to imagine the flying car becoming a scalable solution.”
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