Uber, the controversial market leader in peer-to-peer ridesharing (gig economy taxis) services, may have encountered its share of set-backs over the last couple of years. Important licenses to operate in lucrative locations such as London, France and Germany as well as for several cities and states in its domestic US market have been lost due to the traditional licensed taxi industry lobby and mismanagement scandals.
Any truly ‘disruptive’ tech-based business model that threatens an entrenched traditional rival business model servicing a hugely valuable market can probably expect resistance. And, let’s be honest, as a company Uber doesn’t always help itself in the process of winning friends.
Now though, and not through any tie-up with Red Bull, Uber is looking to give itself wings as it pursues the goal of establishing itself as market leader in the tech-powered taxi-hailing market. Literally. The company has reportedly embarked on a lobbying campaign aimed at securing permission to operate robo-operated ‘flying cabs’.
Uber Elevate as the new unit is named, is being prioritised by CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who replaced scandal-hit co-founder Travis Kalanick in the role last June. Yesterday the company held its Elevate summit, at which guests of honour included US transportation secretary Elaine Chao and Daniel Elwell, boss of the US Federal Aviation Authority. The summit was used by Uber to detail its plans to begin tests of its flying taxis in cities including LA, Dallas and Dubai by 2020. There are ambitious hopes that the Uber Elevate service could be operating commercially within as little as 5 years.
The summit, held in Los Angeles, saw the unveiling of concept vehicles, which are planned to be something along the lines of helicopter-drone hybrids. Uber is partnering with aerospace companies Karem, Embraer, Pipistrel and Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences to develop and manufacture its proposed flying taxis.
Uber argues that taking urban taxi rides into the skies above major cities will help significantly reduce congestion. The airborne vehicles are anticipated to be initially manned by pilots but eventually transition to an autonomous self-driving fleet. And while the initial reaction of potential passengers, apart from nerves, might be expected to be that the kind of service proposed will be outside of the budget of the average urban dweller, Uber also insists this will not be the case. It believes that over time the cost of an Uber Elevate flight will be brought down to around 50 cents (37p) a mile. The biggest attraction to anyone who has suffered from urban congestion in big cities is that it is thought a journey that would take up to an hour and a half in a road-bound taxi would be reduced to 15 minutes in a flying taxi.
Other than overcoming the trepidation of potential passengers, the biggest hurdle that Uber Elevate will have to overcome to stand any chance of hitting its ambitious timelines is regulation. Airspace rules around the world understandably strictly limit air traffic in close proximity to buildings. However, Uber will hope to take advantage of new rules around drone flights. These have recently been relaxed in the USA. While drones carrying human passengers are of course not something current rules consider, Uber are hoping that by using vehicles that meet ‘drone’ classification guidelines, they may be able to overcome regulatory barriers.
Being potentially able to hail an affordable flight to work within the next decade from an app on our smartphones when running late in the morning is certainly an interesting, and not entirely unenticing, prospect.