Tuesday morning saw five flying car experts from the government, academia, and industry, testify about flying cars, an event that would be incomplete without the biggest noise-maker in the space: Uber.
The ride-hailing, food-delivering giant first announced flying car plans nearly three years ago. Despite slicing criticism from the likes of Elon Musk and arguably the worst year in the history of public relations, Uber has flown ahead with its aggressively ambitious plan to launch flying taxi service in Dallas and Los Angeles by 2023. Uber’s still “seeking an international city as the third partner,” its representatives tell Inverse. The company has opened a flying taxi research lab in Paris.
Eric Allison, who is Head of Aviation Programs at Uber, told the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology touted the higher speeds (150-200 mph) and more reliable timing on when passengers will arrive as two improvements the service will provide to customers. In his opening remarks, Allison reiterated the points in that 2016 white paper: flying vehicles will be feasible and affordable.
Asked Don Beyer, a representative from northern Virginia on the committee, of Allison: Will there be air traffic jams or crashes? What happens if 25 percent of the the cars are taken of the interstate, does that congest the air above? And what are the air lanes? Are flying cars going to fly above neighborhoods?
“This will happen progressively over time,” Allison said of Uber’s plans for scaling its autonomous — no drivers to livestream your Uber Elevate trip on Twitch — flying machine operations, in answering those questions about the potential for crowded skies. He added that air traffic congestion won’t be a problem “because there’s just a lot more space” up there. He also said that the still-in-development aircraft will get “dramatically quieter” once they reach cruising speed.
This passage from Uber Elevate’s website touts how quiet its vehicles just might be:
VTOL aircraft will make use of electric propulsion so they have zero operational emissions and will likely be quiet enough to operate in cities without disturbing the neighbors. At flying altitude, noise from advanced electric vehicles will be barely audible.
So how big could Uber Elevate become? Allison told the committee that Uber has done “a lot of demand studies” that show it Uber Elevate could account for up to 10 percent of all trips taken in a region like Los Angeles, but first the VTOL — Vertical Take-Off and Landing — industry needs to make a lot more vehicles. Uber wants those VTOL machines to be powered by electric batteries.
“You could be talking about tens of thousands of vehicles active [and] enough demand to support that,” he said. “That’s an incredible number compared to what the industry can produce right now; we have to see this industry grow significantly … by multiple orders of magnitude.”
Allison said Uber is partnering with five companies that could build the the VTOL vehicles. They are Aurora Flight Sciences (now a subsidiary of Boeing), Pipistrel Aircraft, Embraer, Bell and Karem Aircraft. Bell Aircraft Corporation’s executive vice president of technology and innovation, Michael Thacker, sat next to Allison during the hearing.
As Inverse observed in 2016, the tricky part will be getting the takeoff and landing down to an acceptable length (Uber is hoping for one minute at each end) while also allowing for those high cruising speeds. Part of the plan to reduce timing will involve swappable batteries, with each “vertiport” offering several high-voltage chargers. The company notes that others have had problems with fast charging batteries, but that “infrastructure will likely have chargers for every VTOL to enable overnight recharging.”