Uber will launch flying taxis in Texas and Dubai by 2020, the company's chief product officer Jeff Holden has announced at the Uber Elevate Summit.
Using small electric VTOL (Vertical Take-off and Landing) aircraft, Uber will charge passengers $1.32 per mile (about £1.03 at current rates).
This price is slightly higher than the cost of booking an UberX cab. The firm says that the cost will reduce over time so much so that'll it'll one day be cheaper to use Uber's flying taxi service than to run a car.
Uber described its plans as enabling “rapid reliable transport between suburbs and cities, and ultimately, within cities”. Daily long-distance commutes in heavily congested urban areas not served by existing infrastructure would likely to be the first to use the aircraft.
More than a dozen companies are working on the project, including vehicle charging station maker Chargepoint, which will develop an exclusive charger for the network of Uber aircraft.
Twice as safe as a car
Uber's electric aircraft, which would be quieter, cheaper and less polluting than its nearest equivalent, the helicopter, would ultimately use autonomous technology, the company says, making it much safer by “significantly reducing operator error”.
Uber envisages VTOL aircraft can be twice as safe as driving a car due to autonomy and distributed electric propulsion (DEP). The use of DEP allows for fixed-wing VTOLs, which wouldn't need large helicopter rotors and generate lift with greater efficiency than rotors.
However, Uber has said: “No vehicle manufacturer to date has yet demonstrated a commercially viable aircraft featuring DEP, so there is real risk here.”
Cheaper than running a car
Uber believes that in the long term, using VTOL aircraft taxis be more affordable than running a car. Acknowledging that today’s aircraft and helicopters cost about 20 times more than a car, due to low-volume manufacturing, it said: “If VTOLs can serve the on-demand urban transit case well — quiet, fast, clean, efficient, and safe — there is a path to high production volume manufacturing (at least thousands of a specific model type built per year) which will enable VTOLs to achieve a dramatically lower per-vehicle cost. The economics of manufacturing VTOLs will become more akin to automobiles than aircraft.”
It added that early VTOL vehicles are likely to be very expensive, but because the ridesharing model quickly reduces vehicle cost, “the high cost should not end up being prohibitive to getting started”.
“Once the ridesharing service commences, a positive feedback loop should ensure that ultimately reduces costs and thus prices for all users, i.e. as the total number of users increases, the utilisation of the aircraft increases,” the company said.
Uber also identified a number of challenges which must be addressed to make the aircraft viable. These include the certification process for new aircraft concepts, battery technology for electric transport and issues with air traffic control.
The greatest operational barrier for deploying a fleet of flying taxis is a lack of sufficient locations for landing pads, Uber says.
The firm describes the vision as “ambitious” but believes “it is achievable in the coming decade if all the key actors in the VTOL ecosystem — regulators, vehicle designers, communities, cities, and network operators — collaborate effectively".