Ride-hailing platform Uber recently announced a plan to roll out air taxis in selected cities by 2020. The taxis would be rolled out in selected cities — Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Dubai are the first three on tap. There, Uber’s air service would seat up to 4 people per craft and carry them above city spires at 200 miles per hour.
Air taxis might be coming…
The service would ferry users around using the same app-based methods as Uber cars do, but promise to be quicker and more convenient, especially in traffic-clogged cities.
Are air taxis a technology news idea whose time has come?
Well, they could be. But there are also plenty of reasons to be somewhat skeptical that Uber can bring air taxis to real usability in three short years.
The NASA Partnership Is Real…
One part of the recent announcement that is definitely happening is that Uber has signed a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to create software to manage autonomous flying cars. The contract was inked in January 2017 and allows Uber to join with a number of industry partners who also work with NASA.
NASA is very interested in using flying craft to perform a number of duties. Reuters reports that Uber’s agreement includes involvement in the agency’s phase 4, slated to begin in March 2019.
If it’s phase 4, was Uber involved in the first three phases? No.
Phase 1 was dedicated to field testing drones for fire-fighting, agricultural purposes, and monitoring of pipelines. Testing took place at a United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) site.
Phase 2, last year, tested long-distance drone use for relatively unpopulated areas, and phase 3, planned for next year, will test services in areas with moderate populations. Phase 4 will roll them out to higher density urban centers.
…but Uber Faces Very Large Challenges, Too
So interesting things for autonomous flying vehicles in the U.S. are happening. But can Uber actually launch flying taxis?
Many challenges face the company, as Forbes points out.
Most prominently, it’s not clear if the FAA, the Department of Transportation, and local cities and states will approve flying taxis. There are multiple stages of approval to be passed, and multiple sites of approval.
Would flying taxis pass noise regulations in cities, for example? Vertical take-off and landing vehicles tend to be very loud, which is why you can’t hear yourself speak when helicopters come in or take off.
Where would the taxis take off and land? While heliports exist, they tend to be on the outside of cities. Are they enough to make a 4-passenger vehicle profitable and convenient? Can Uber get licenses to land?
Speaking of licenses, who would pilot the taxis? Are the taxis to be completely self-driving? The FAA and possibly other agencies would have to rule on that. Is that likely before 2020?
Would any human pilots use the same business model for Uber cars — that is, private contractors over whom Uber has no direct control? Who would grant the pilots a license?
What about air traffic control? Would it be the same system as airplanes use now? Could that system handle the volume?
The more questions like this pile up, the more it begins to look as if air taxis might be possible in the future, but that future might not arrive by 2020, and Uber may play a minor role, if any. It may just be a business strategy attempt by a beleaguered — and currently, not yet profitable — company to gain the spotlight.