Uber's Elevate project is "right on target," the company said at a vertical flight conference in San Jose. Image: Rendering of an Uber Skyport in LA by SHoP. (Uber/SHoP)
SAN JOSE, Ca. — When Uber published a white paper in 2016 promising to build an affordable aerial rideshare service with all-electric aircraft, many viewed the project with the same seriousness as Silicon Valley efforts to cure death or Google’s moonshot exploration of a space elevator.
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Now, three years later, the company says progress is “right on target” — and the FAA, NASA, and a number of billion dollar companies are on board.
Speaking at the Transformative Vertical Flight conference in San Jose, Mark Moore, Uber’s director of aviation engineering, moved the conversation away from building and certifying the all-new class of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and towards other challenges.
“We’re entering the next phase of Elevate, which is all about the preparation of cities for these incredible vehicles which we’re all realizing are very real and well along the path of certification,” said Moore. Uber Air is slated to launch in Los Angeles, Dallas and Melbourne in 2023.
Though significant challenges remain, the FAA has also signaled progress on aircraft certification. Last week, Jay Merkle, head of the agency’s unmanned aircraft integration office, said that six aircraft intended for urban air mobility applications are “well along” in the type certification process, insisting that new regulations or rewrites will not be needed to certify and operate these new aircraft.
In San Jose, Mike Romanowski, director of policy and innovation at the FAA’s aircraft certification office, revealed more progress, speaking at the rapidly-growing annual eVTOL conference hosted by the Vertical Flight Society.
“These are rough estimates, but I would say we have about 70 different [certification] projects that we’re working at a reasonable level of rigor … of those, probably 15, maybe a dozen, are in the eVTOL regime. We’re actually physically laying out the pathway to certification requirements.”
The media environment for urban air mobility is becoming increasingly favorable as well, according to an analysis conducted by Lufthansa’s innovation hub, which is studying how the company will participate in the emerging industry. Online coverage of eVTOLs and UAM was split between favorable and unfavorable for many years, according to Lufthansa’s analysis, but skewed increasingly favorable in 2018 and 2019.
Uber has a spotty history — to put it generously — with community engagement. For years, under founder Travis Kalanick, the company operated under the common Silicon Valley mantra of “growth at all costs,” willing and eager to play dirty and break laws in order to gain access to markets and expand its user base. Uber has now provided customers more than 15 billion trips globally.
But for Uber Air, the company has repeatedly expressed a focus on community engagement, understanding that noise and safety — both perception and reality — will ultimately determine market access, and in many cities helicopters’ favorability ratings look like political candidates who rarely get elected.
Uber has studied both failed and successful community engagements efforts, reaching a few conclusions that will underpin their approach: “Never surprise the community,” said Moore. “Give them plenty of time and data on what you’re trying to do so they can buy into it.”
Aircraft development partners will be required by Uber to drastically reduce their acoustic footprint, targeting 15 decibels lower than the FAA’s Stage 3 standards for traditional helicopters. Moore’s team is working to model acceptable locations for vertiports, where noise from takeoff and landing won’t drastically exceed background noise levels in the community.
Though eVTOLs will be much quieter in cruise mode, Uber is focused on flyover noise pollution as well. Moore said the goal is to limit impact to 1.5 decibels, measured as an “equivalent continuous sound level,” or Leq.
“Depending on where we’re flying over … that translates to only 23 flights per hour over San Francisco, all the way up to 235 flights per hour over high-density residential in San Diego,” Moore said.
“This is why you’ve got to have a wing,” Moore added, speaking to aircraft designers in the room. “If you stay in powered lift during that entire cruise, you will almost certainly not have a good noise signature at altitudes such as 1,000 feet, which makes sense for these short, urban trips.”
The other key to acceptance, particularly at scale, is affordability. There is little doubt that eVTOLs will be able to capture congested markets currently serviced by helicopters, but whether aerial rideshare can compete on price with and capture market share from terrestrial transit — which Uber asserts it can — is still up in the air.
“If there isn’t a really firm business case and strong economics behind even the coolest idea, it’s not going to matter,” Moore said. “That’s why I’m so proud that Uber is bringing that business case that makes sense.”
“I know that some of you lived through the very light jet era of Dayjet and Eclipse,” he added, referring to previous industry hype around a significant expansion to the aerospace market. “I analyzed that at NASA … this is very, very different in terms of a feasible business case. This is really happening.”
Similar to its asset-light approach to rideshare, Uber doesn’t intend to own the aircraft that make up the Uber Air service. Through the Elevate ecosystem, Uber has provided some level of engineering support and guidance, but ownership models are likely to vary, including leasing companies typical to aerospace.
“We very much equate this urban aviation market to commercial airlines, just much shorter trips, and a large portion of commercial airliners are owned by lease companies,” Moore said. “The challenge there is they need to understand the residual value of these vehicles at the end of the lease, and when these vehicles are designed for essentially a brand new market, it’s a very significant question. So it’s important we think ahead to 5-7 years out after we introduce service to when [these vehicles] will be retiring and we’ll be bringing on the new vehicles … that there’s cargo missions for them to do and an opportunity space for a reasonable residual value.”
Some of the vehicle partners with larger balance sheets — including Joby Aviation’s largest investor, Toyota, which Moore said has access to $100 billion in cash — may find it financially advantageous to maintain ownership of the aircraft, creating a more dependable source of revenue.
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“Most of the companies are really excited about essentially going to the equivalent of power by the hour, by having a revenue stream that is constantly coming in so they don’t get into the difficulties of cyclic markets,” Moore said. “Helicopter companies have had this in spades. One year they sell a ton of aircraft, and the next year oil prices are low and they hardly sell any, and that’s not a good thing for production lines.”
“[Having] a steady income is a really good thing that could lead this entire industry to a healthier balance sheet.”
In the past few weeks, Hyundai and Toyota have made major commitments to urban air mobility, though companies including Porsche, Audi and Geely have made moves into the third dimension as well.
“I predict within the next year and a half you'll see almost every major automotive company step into this industry in significant ways,” Moore stated.
One more bold prediction from Uber’s chief aviation engineer: “There’s no question in my mind that someday Joby will be a $20-50 billion aerospace corporation.”