The persistent human dream to fly is taking wings again. This time, she wants to fly short distances powered by sustainable energy sources to reduce daily commute times and congestion in urban areas. A coalition of companies is coming together to set up air mobility services that could ideally change the urban landscape and essentially what we mean by the term ‘city’ itself. Uber, which is bringing this coalition of aircraft manufacturers, battery companies, realty firms and governments, calls it the most radical effort ever to transform urban transportation. The Uber Elevate has been in the works for a while, but started taking flight only now.
After announcing that the first commercial flights of Uber Air will be from Dallas and Los Angeles in the US, the ride-share company is now looking for a third, international, location. It has shortlisted India, with its highly congested urban regions of Delhi and Mumbai, along with Japan, Brazil, Australia and France, given the possible impact a short distance urban commute option for the masses could make. For instance, in India, a Nariman Point to Mumbai airport or a Gurgaon to Connaught Place commute would be reduced to just 10 minutes, saving the users at least two hours every day. Uber’s estimate is that urban congestion costs India alone $22 billion a year.
The idea is to fly eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft at speeds of up to 300kph and heights under 2,000 feet in the cities. It is anything but easy. The first of these aircraft—a lot of companies are working on the concept—are unlikely to get to test flight stage before 2020. There are challenges in terms of what kind of VTOL aircraft would be finally used and the types of battery that can sustain a 100-km flight. Then there is the entire hurdle of policy as this is something radically new, and convincing city administrations and aviation authorities to play ball will be anything but easy. There is also the question of who foots the bill for a project like this as the cost is not just that of the fleet, but also of the mega skyports needed to run these from.
If these cogs in the wheel finally fall in place, we could actually look forward to seeing our cities transform drastically. For Uber itself, this is a change in how the company functions. With new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, the focus is clearly on building partnerships and not trying to do everything on its own. So, for Uber Elevate, the company will be more of a technology facilitator.
Uber COO Barney Harford told me that Uber believes its Elevate programme can address the two big urban issues of our times—congestion and pollution—at scale. “Uber Air will be safe, reliable and, over time, cost-effective. We believe that the model we are developing will make it accessible for many with price points that line up with the cost of getting an Uber X”, he said, but that will also depend on when the concept is able to “evolve from a piloted version to an autonomous one”.
So, in a market like India, if Uber Air takes off in the next decade or so, the prices might still be prohibitive for the masses. But Eric Allison, Head of Aviation Programs at Uber, put it in perspective: “Even if there’s a smaller percentage of people who are able to afford at a certain price point, it still can be a very large absolute number (in India)”.
While flying car concepts are not new, Uber Elevate seems to be the only concept that is thinking in terms of the entire ecosystem, economics and policy. Even as India tries to understand its recent drone policy, Uber’s top honchos will soon be in the country to start first discussions on if a Delhi or a Mumbai could bite the bullet in terms of being first off the ground with an air mobility concept like this.
Meanwhile, as a spin-off, we could see Uber Eats deliver your order using an unmanned aerial vehicle around the time the Uber Air is expected. Drone delivery of dal makhani might happen quicker than a 10-minute flight to the suburbs.