Uber Elevate attendees trying Uber's virtual reality experience. In the back, a video shows an Uber Air vehicle landing at a megaport. (Nick Zazulia/AVI)
Take a ride with Uber Elevate, traveling 47 miles over congested roads in under 10 minutes total.
Turn to your right, and you will see Oakland's Oracle Arena dropping away, the site of this Thursday's Game 6 of the NBA Finals. As your ride switches from takeoff to cruise mode, the wing-mounted rotors fold into the wings, and you speed toward the South Bay's Santa Clara, California.
In the intervening five or so minutes, you look around the cabin from your spot in the back-left. There are three other seats of perforated white leather — reminiscent of a luxury sedan — and large viewports to afford a good view of the cityscape below. As you finish taking stock, the bright lights of Santa Clara come into view, stark against the now-darkened sky. Your air taxi approaches a massive construct ringed by what look like helipads and lands on one. In an attempt to increase efficiency, the moving platform shifts your vehicle out of the way of the next incoming flyer and before you disembark, you glimpse greenery and other prospective passengers scattered about the megaport.
Disembark; you have completed your ride.
That's the experience the company is providing, with the help of virtual reality headsets, at its annual Elevate Summit in downtown D.C. In a bid to make the seemingly far-off palpable, Uber is inviting attendees to experience the simulation — albeit free of some key details, like booking a trip or getting to a vertiport. Just sit down on a bank of chars with five other attendees, don the headset, and see what Uber wants you to pay for in a few short years.
A model of a large-scale vertiport design developed by Pickard Chilton and Arup, one of the teams selected by Uber to design Skyports. (Nick Zazulia/AVI)
There are differences: No pilot is visible in the simulation, but the company believes that an onboard operator will be necessary for some time before fully autonomous operations can realistically take over.
Notably, acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell said the same in a speech at the Summit.
"We, I, the FAA, understand your desire to sprint out of the starting gate. But you have to understand our safety requirements… When we’re ready, we’ll move to urban areas with semi-autonomous operations," Elwell said, calling semi-autonomous operations the middle phase of the necessary crawl-walk-run progression that the fledgling urban air mobility industry will have to go through if it wants certification.
"Megaports" are also still a dream. Elevate head Eric Allison said the company will eventually need such monstrous constructs featuring multiple vertiports to hit its target of 1,000-plus takeoffs per hour. Right now, Uber is working with cities, hotels, airports and real estate developers to place single vertiports — or Skyports — in its launch cities. Taking large swathes of land to build dedicated megaports is still only an idea, though it does give a glimpse into the company's mindset.
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