A future of Flying Cabs
It was the year 2016, when Uber became the market leader in the American Taxi industry and one of the world’s biggest cab aggregator, all this without owning a large fleet of cars. The company launched a small fleet of self-driving cars in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and was on its way of becoming one of the most valuable start-ups ever.
This all evolved with the company first visualising a demand for a quicker travel medium, a transport for hire mechanism that could allow extremely fast travel, without the hassles of road issues and traffic jams, reducing significant amount of travel time for the passengers of the Ultra-modern Metropolitan cities, where time is considered to be more important than actual money. The solution, as per the company, was air travel. Enter – “Uber Elevate”, a system of electric flying machines that could take off and land vertically. A network, that was similar to those of the car fleets of the company on the road, existing in air, of electric choppers and helicopters, that could pick up and drop customers with a vertical or short flight system, which later came to be known as the VTOL (Vertical Take off and Landing) and could reduce the travel time by 1/8th of the time taken by cars on traffic congested roads.
The primary challenge for the company, at the time was not the designing and manufactruing of such an aircraft, which was taken care of by a host of private and government partnerships on technical, infrastructural and regulatory issues, as well as for the problems such as battery density, aircraft certification and air traffic control (ATC). The biggest issue on the horizon at the time was Take off and Landing of the Aircraft that would be carrying multiple passengers and a Pilot.
Uber’s plan on Vertical Take-off and Landing Technology (VTOL)
On 27th October 2017, Uber published a white paper on Uber Elevate, which is the On-Demand Urban Air Transportation programme of the company, and highlighted the points such as what was the need of such a transportation medium and the challenges that the company would face in building such technology. As per the white paper, the company reported that the advances in the technology behind aviation, as well as other areas, have made it possible to design and manufacture such vehicles, which could land and take off in closer spaces, vertically. In fact, a lot of the aero space and defence companies are already implementing a lot of ideas on design, post conducting various research on the same. The company reported that at the time, the closest technology in operation was the helicopter, but its noise, pollution and difficulty in operation makes it non feasible for this particular business model.
Coming to the VTOL, the company reported that the cost around the development of the infrastructure around a VTOL network, would be lesser than the cost to be incurred around the infrastructure for other transport mechanisms, such as roads, rail bridges, stations, etc, and hence, this type of a air travel mechanism would be successful. Additionally, this transport would not have to follow a fixed route such as a train or a bus, which would avoid further delays in time as a passenger could be carried from Point A to Point B directly, making it extremely efficient.
Different Types of VTOL
- Rotorcraft – Aircrafts that will use the rotation of motor blades to generate power for the lift-up around the central body.
- Powered-Lift Vehicles - take off and land vertically but operate with a different mechanism as compared to a rotorcraft when in air, with a conventional fixed wing structure that the carrier aircrafts today have.
Following this, in January 2019, the company revealed the first design of its aerial rideshare programme at the Consumer Electronics Show 2019 (CES) in Las Vegas. This was called “The Nexus” and as per the company, it was a major step in its Elevate programme. This also implies that the company is on track in terms of producing the world’s first aerial rideshare network. The presentation of this concept was possible because of Uber’s partnership with various aircraft companies such as Bell Helicopter, Boeing’s Aurora Flight services and many others. The company also reported that when this programme will finally be in implementation, the first services for consumers would start in the city of Dallas, Texas, Los Angeles, California and an undisclosed third location. Uber’s target for implementation of this service is 2023.
Latest Developments on the Uber-Hyundai Partnership
In addition to the major development at the CES 2019, on 7th January 2020, in the Consumer Electronics Show 2020, Uber unveiled a final concept of its Flying Taxi, in partnership with the world automotive giant, Hyundai, that could be a revolution in the ridesharing business. The companies displayed a four-seater model of an Electric VTOL or eVTOL, through which, the consumers would be able to call their rides by using Uber’s app, sometime in the coming future. As per the representatives of Hyundai, a final prototype of the product, would be ready by the year 2023 and it will be flown by a human software, even though, various tech companies are in the process of developing and finalising a software that could eventually fly autonomously. Hyundai is the latest company that is partnering with Uber for the development of such a service. Previously, Boeing too had developed a Prototype as well Larry Page, co-founder of Google, had invested in loads of Start ups working on bringing this technology to the market.
If and when this programme is implemented, it could come out to be a huge success because of the benefits it provides not just to the consumers, but also to the public organisations and governments. The prime benefit is obviously the reduction in travel time for everyone, but apart from that, this might also lead to a reduction in cost of creating road-based infrastructures for the governments. Since it is being created to be an electric vehicle, it will also have environmental benefits, and will help countries to reach the Paris Climate Agreement Goal, especially by reducing the use of fossil fuel run vehicles in the metropolitan cities of each country. Even with the benefits mentioned, there could be a lot of roadblocks in the implementation of such projects in the future, it is important to understand some of those.
- Technological Challenges – Even though developments in technology have really benefitted this idea, there is still a long way to go and even though, a concept of the product is ready, given the sensitive nature of the air travel business, getting to the concluding prototype, final development of the product and further testing will take a long time.
- Business Model – Uber is currently trying to develop this network with a business model that would be similar to its taxi-based business model that is in operation currently. But the problem is, a similar business model is extremely risky, and might or might not function properly, because the road doesn’t have any norms as the air traffic control does, which might not create a successful service.
- Scalability – Another major concern to be faced is if this business is scalable or not, as atleast in the very beginning, how many consumers would want to pay higher costs for their travel, is something that has not been figured out by the company yet. And if the number of passengers is not much or is below expectation, the scalability and expansion of such a business will be an issue for the company.
- Capital Requirements – Even though a lot of the bigger companies from all across the world are investing in the process of developing such a technology, the problem might arise when there will be a need to move to a larger fleet of such vehicles and the amount of capital required to design and manufacture such a fleet would be very high. If the investors will want to be in on an unproven business or not, is still an unknown factor.
Uber and Hyundai’s presentation of the concept of the eVTOL can be called a big step in the right direction towards building this business, and a major development in terms of technological advancement. But there are still a host of challenges in terms of the implementation of such a service, which also include obtaining regulatory approvals from government authorities all across the world, as well as some defence related issues that will need to be sorted out before the first flight of this taxi service takes off. In any case, we can say that if and when this programme is on board, it will be a bandwagon which every major transport, automotive and aviation company as well as cab aggregators would want to jump on, and this will also be an area that will influx a large number of jobs, which is why the support of the governments on this could be imminent.
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