Commercial, Unmanned

The Air Taxi Challenges Uber Isn’t Considering

Bell's Nexus air taxi vehicle, being developed for Uber. (Bell)

Bell's Nexus air taxi vehicle, being developed for Uber. (Bell)

Not so fast, Uber.

Breaking into the urban air mobility market means a lot of challenges that a company new to the game has no way of accounting for, according to Itai Shoshani, CEO and chief pilot for New York helicopter charter Zip Aviation.

"People think they're going to wait for a helicopter with an Uber sign on it," Shoshani said. "They're going to learn this is different than a car service. It's a completely different world. If I was Uber, I would steer clear of this."

Of course, it isn't just Uber. While it is perhaps the most visible company on the forefront of the imminent-seeming air taxi revolution, there are some 150-plus companies developing vehicles for that purpose and almost every major player in aviation is at least dipping its toe into the waters.

Boeing, whose eVTOL prototype took its first flight earlier this year, is investigating both vehicle technology and infrastructure to support the inclusion of this type of traffic into the national airspace system. Airbus is partnering with Audi on a planned air-and-ground system in an attempt to fill every bit of the customers' needs, a la Uber, with an autonomous modular pod that attached to both a rotor construct and a wheelbase.

Embraer has a division working with Uber, as does Bell. Rolls-Royce is working on eVTOL engines, after initial skepticism. Honeywell; Thales; Lockheed Martin's Sikorsky. In one capacity or another, all the big companies are trying to make sure they don't miss out on a new industry that could be as "important in aviation as the dawn of the jet age."

And beyond industry, the FAA and NASA in the U.S., EASA in Europe and a host of other regulators are hard at work figuring out how best to facilitate this new mode of transportation. Vehicles that are a bit different from anything that has previously existed need certification and strain a system that generally develops certifications by association; that is, adjusting pre-existing rules that most closely apply. Infrastructure needs building to support tracking traffic relatively low to the ground in urban centers; policies need to be formed to facilitate integration into current air traffic flows and the jobs being done by air traffic controllers; and that's before even getting into the additional challenges posed by proposed autonomy.

Industry is working with government on these issues, and there is a sense of confidence that they will be solved, at least among those whose success depends on solving them. But space for an industry and seeing dollar signs isn't enough to ensure that companies will correctly navigate unfamiliar terrain, according to Shoshani. Aviation isn't all the same.

Commercial aviation companies "haven't operated in a place like New York City, where you have three airports overlaying each other," Shoshani said. "They haven't dealt with the issues [charter helicopter companies] have. It's not like an airline; you're not going to have people just line up and stand and get tickets."

Like many skeptics, Shoshani thinks the timeframe — companies such as Uber want to have air taxis in the sky within five years — is unrealistic, because the lack of infrastructure and regulation will prevent the industry from getting off the ground.

"I'm not worried, per se, but these are things that can take time," he said. "Before 2030, it's not even a chance."

He admits that the vehicle technology "is there" but says "it's not a practical machine," and more development is needed until today's air taxis can fill more missions. 

"People talk about demos, it's not about users, about what the mission can possibly be," he said. "It's going to have to be short hops," in the near-term because that's what current battery technology will allow.

"That is not an entire market," he continued. "Uber is a $13 billion company. The entire helicopter industry is a $400 million industry. How are we going to get a point that what do with drones [autonomous vehicles] is going to be enough to keep them interested for any amount of time?  We're talking about a small piece of helicopter business."

A lot of ink has been spilled over the pilot shortage and how urban air mobility companies are going to combat it. In the long-term, the goal is autonomy. Shoshani buys into unmanned vehicles but is skeptical of autonomous ones without one-to-one remote-pilot oversight.

"The FAA traditionally wants someone, one person, in charge that if, God forbid, something happens, they can point at and say, 'bad,'" he said.

That's further down the line, anyway, though. In the short term, Uber has suggested using autonomy to off-load much of the pilot's responsibilities, thus allowing them to broaden the field of suitable pilot candidates, perhaps from commercial helicopter pilots to certified pilots at large.

"That’s just stupid," Shoshani said.

While he thinks any pilot should be the most qualified available, he doesn't believe airline, GA, or helicopter pilots should be flying the air taxi mission.

"FAA and regulators, ICAO, are going to need to come up with a new type of pilots," he said. "Not going to be from fixed-wing or from helicopter, but from drone pilots.

"They need to have a drone pilot" he continued. "Not other pilots. Because, again, it’s a specific mission. You might as well just say 'Hey, let's grab kids that are really good at video games.' They’re just as qualified as a pilot that came off a fixed-wing."

He firmly believes in the need for mission-specific pilots, which he thinks Uber is not considering. "They keep seeing it like drivers; it's not like [how] you have drivers out there on the street. You can't do that in a helicopter."

While charter companies don't have not-yet-existent drone pilots in their ranks, they do have people familiar with the mission, which is why Shoshani thinks they can help.

"I believe the helicopter charter industry is the only one equipped to fly that kind of mission," he said. "The charter companies know how to do this operation. They’re the ones who know the local operations, how to load unload, regulations."

He also pitched their ability to supplement early air taxis with helicopters, depending on the ride's requirements.

It's not a one-way street, either. Despite his skepticism of the timeline and confidence in some bumps and bruises, Shoshani said he's convinced that urban air mobility is going to happen and eVTOL vehicles will eventually change the landscape of the industry. Charter companies need to accept that, he said.

"The companies that aren’t going to accept the fact that Uber and these big companies are in the game ... they’re going to hurt.”

Right now, Uber is focused on its own enabling technologies, but Shoshani said he would not be surprised if that changed as the rideshare giant begins to realize the intricacies inherent to setting up its air taxis in these cities.

"It would not be at all surprising if they partnered [with] or bought out some of those companies" in the next year or so, he said.

That would also be a benefit to companies like Zip who are looking to secure their future in a world that's on the verge of major changes with a big influx of capital. They may have a good shot if they can prove to the newcomers that they have something valuable to offer, as Shoshani says.

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  • Rod

    Itai needs to spend some time talking with the Uber Elevate team about their operating concept (and their engagement with the FAA’s policy directorate). His belief that the service will be just another charter company is misguided. It will actually be a seamless part of the Uber system, using the same app-based booking infrastructure as the ground-based portion.