The Problems With Uber’s Flying Cars

This week Uber created quite a splash when it unveiled plans for its “flying taxi” service, which aims create a network of airborne craft that will whisk passengers through busy metropolitan areas at speeds of more than 100 mph. That’s not even the most audacious part of the scheme; the company plans to have the first trials in place in just three years with the program fully implemented by 2023!

The Washington Post provides a great summary of the company’s plans below:

At a summit in Dallas Tuesday, company executives outlined plans to develop their own electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing aircraft, or VTOLs, that would use small landing pads called “vertiports.”

“It’s possible because we’re radically changing the type of aircraft,” Jeff Holden, chief product officer at Uber Technologies, said at the summit. “This is why we’re so bullish. … We just want to usher it in as fast as possible because we all want to live in this world.”

A futuristic fantasy for many, that world may now be closer to reality. (To wit, a remarkable series of paintings that depicted what people around the year 1900 thought France would look like in the year 2000.)

Still, flying cars face a number of logistical, technical and regulatory obstacles: Much as in the development of electric planes, battery limitations place boundaries on the duration of a flight in an all-electric flying car. But those hurdles have not stopped Uber and other Silicon Valley tech companies from launching aggressive initiatives to develop flying vehicles.

Uber, the ride-sharing company that in recent months has faced its share of lawsuits and scandalspublished a white paper about “on-demand aviation” last fall, and earlier this year, the company hired longtime NASA aircraft engineer Mark Moore to help it develop flying cars.

Eventually, the company, which is also developing self-driving cars, thinks it can get the cost for a trip in an Uber flying taxi down to an ambitious $1.32 per passenger mile, with the overall goal of making it “economically irrational” to drive a car on the ground, Holden said Tuesday.

The technology itself is impressive and completely realistic. Uber is partnering with innovative startups like Lilium and Kitty Hawk to enable small VTOL aircraft to operate in urban areas in a systematic fashion. The notion that these vehicles could be deployed and operating in some urban areas over the next few years is not a stretch. VOTL technology is currently used for drones and is already being applied to larger vehicles.

The fantastical element of Uber’s plans, and some of the media coverage that has followed, is the scale. The notion that these flying taxis will somehow become a primary mode of transportation or will make ground based transport obsolete, all within the next ten years, is pure fiction.

Here are three big reasons why:

Cities Aren’t Yet Designed For Thousands of Flying Vehicles

The most obvious flaw with Uber’s vision for “flying taxis” is the fact that cities, in their current form, simply aren’t that amenable to a large volume of flying vehicles. While the underlying technology behind compact flying vehicles may be on the horizon, the ancillary infrastructure to support their operation far more distant.

Cities took decades to fully acclimate to the automobile, roads had to be paved, highways built from scratch.

Consider for a moment the infrastructure required for a network of even 1,000 such flying taxis

  • A network of “ports” that would allow the aircraft to take off and land. In order to be useful there would have to be thousands of such “ports” across the city, or else passenger would be forced to confront the first mile/last mile problem; walking or driving further to the port and their final destination.These facilities would have to be staffed, presumably with a worker to arrange for recharging/refueling of the vehicles and to ensure the safety of those who are waiting for their ride.Really, hundreds of pages could be written about just the construction of these ports; it’s sure to be complicated. Ports would be located on private property, either on the tops of buildings or on the ground. Therefore, they’d have to be leased, retrofitted and operated. Some facilities may be located on public property, but this only may lead to an even lengthier process.
  • Air traffic control systems would be needed to keep everyone safe. In addition to flying amongst themselves, these vehicles would be joining helicopters, low-flying planes and drones in vying for crowded urban airspace. On the ground, control systems ensure that traffic is relatively orderly and smooth. To accomplish this, modern cities have developed an comprehensive system of synchronized traffic lights, signage, and enforcement agents to control the flow of ground vehicles.

    Urban airspace has none of that.Moreover, while automobile accidents occur frequently, few are destructive and fatal. In stark contrast, accidents that happen in the skies, at high speeds, are far more likely to result in the loss of life and adverse effects to property.

  • Maintenance and regulatory frameworks would have to be put in place. The government already has plenty of safety regulations for ground vehicles, the regulations for “flying taxis” are likely to be much more stringent. Restrictions applying weather conditions and visibility are among the most obvious, with others to follow

The reality is that large cities like New York have well over 70,000 taxis and black cars. By making flying taxis competitive with road vehicles, Uber envisions a near future with not hundreds, but many tens of thousands of these vehicles in the sky.

It Will Be Too Expensive

Uber wants to get the cost of travel down to $1.32 per passenger mile, an extremely ambitious figure. With this cost structure, a 25 mile ride would cost the company only $33, and a ten percent markup would bring the total fare to the user to just about $36.30. Traveling at 100 mph, with an added 10 minutes for takeoff and landing, would bring the total trip to about 14 minutes total, a pretty impressive figure especially for a traffic clogged region.

If Uber can squeeze 4 such trips in the course of an hour then the company can generate $146 per our in passenger revenue, assuming one paying passenger per trip.

The economic challenges, however, become apparent when you consider some of the costs involved:

  • Vehicle maintenance: The cost of adequately maintaining a fleet of sophisticated flying machines is sure to be much higher than automobiles. For one thing, the craft envisioned by Uber are larger and more complex than a car. These vehicles will also operate with much less room for error than their ground based counterparts; when a ground taxi encounters engine trouble it can easily pull aside and request assistance, troubles experienced in a flying taxi will instantly put the passengers and others at grave risk.
  • Port usage and maintenance: Aside from the capital cost of construction, the cost of maintaining ancillary infrastructures related to the operation of these taxis is will add a great deal of expense to this system.
  • Pilots: With fully autonomous automobiles at least five-ten years away, there is no reason to believe that autonomous aircraft will be with us anytime soon. These craft will need fully trained pilots to operate, and they’ll be much more expensive than a conventional driver.
  • Insurance: The cost of insurance for these vehicles will surely be much higher than than that of a land based vehicle
  • Government taxes and fees: To implement and maintain an air traffic control system, municipal agencies will also imposes significant fees on this air taxis.

The result of these costs will be an expensive form of transportation that only the very wealthy can afford to use regularly.

Perhaps “sky limousine” will be a more appropriate moniker for this program.

It’s difficult to predict the exact cost of a ride, but I foresee this service posing greater competition for helicopter ride-for-hires instead of ground based transport. For example, in New York, a helicopter ride to JFK airport from Downtown Manhattan (approximately 12 miles) can cost up to $220, while a traditional taxi is about 23 percent the cost, at $50 dollars. An aggressively priced sky taxi service could bring the cost down to $150, still 3x the cost of a traditional taxi, but significantly less than a chopper.

The sky-taxi, could also compete with traditional choppers by offering more destinations since these craft are smaller, quieter and more nimble, allowing them to land in more locations. Even still, it would require a stretch of the imagination to see how these craft could compete with ground based transport, on price, as Uber claims.

flying car uber.png
Image via Uber.

It’s Not an Efficient Method of Urban Travel

Even if Uber were somehow able to defy economic gravity and design system of safe, affordable flying taxis it would make very little sense for as a form of mass transit.

From a transportation perspective, the flying taxi would represent a doubling down on failing car-oriented urban development policies. A fleet of flying taxis, even one that is 1,000 strong, will never transport more than a fraction of a fraction of commuters. Modern urban transit systems are designed to move millions of commuters during peak hours.

By comparison, a flying taxi fleet like the one Uber envisions will only be able to transport a few thousand per hour at a maximum.

More profoundly, with transportation advocates beginning to claw back street space for pedestrians and bikes, the public is not likely to accept the handover of public airspace for thousands of private flying vehicles. It doesn’t take much to foresee the impending backlash from a preservationist minded public that values a clear view of the sky. I doubt any Western city will permit more than a 1,000 of these vehicles to operate at any given time, at least not in the near future.

Lilium_Landing_Pad__Rooftop_
Image via Lilium

So What’s The Future of This Tech?

Though I have some skepticism about the commuting implications of this new crop of flying vehicles, I see broad applications for the niche market of rapid/luxury travel regional travel.

Uber may be doing a disservice to the technology by pitching it as a way to travel within cities, when instead it’s more appropriate to think of this technology within the context of quick transport around larger metropolitan regions, especially for those that can afford to pay greater fees for much faster travel.

In this context, I can see these types of vehicles serving, mainly, high net worth individuals for business and pleasure trips that occur within a range of 50-200 miles. For example, these craft may prove suitable for wealthy New Yorkers who are headed to the Hamptons or the Jersey Shore for the weekend, normally trips that could take hours by car, but only minutes by air.

On the same token, wealthier clientele could also use the vehicles for trips between cities that are relatively close to each other like. Trips between London and Paris or Los Angeles and San Diego could be reduced to under an hour for those willing to pay. A trip between New York and Philadelphia, for example, can take an hour by rail. Chopper trips between the cities often require an expensive charter. A compact VTOL aircraft, however, could make the trip in less than 25 minutes, with the ability to quietly land in a wide number of locations around the city, allowing the passengers to get closer to their destinations.

Uber may not need this technology to scale in order to become profitable. The company could target the “luxury” transportation market, with users getting super fast, discrete trips between and from remote parts of the region to the city core.

From a business perspective, it could be a worthwhile goal, but it won’t be the transportation revolution for everyone that some are promising.

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