Rob McDonald, Uber’s head of vehicle engineering, said: “Manufacturers know how to produce aircraft, but none have developed an eVTOL (electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicle – duh) for urban air mobility. We look for gaps in technology, tools and testing and spend money to fill those gaps and share the results with our partners.”
Taking a page out of NASA’s book, Uber is developing guidelines – or common reference models (eCRM) – that industry partners can use to help build its eVTOL. The company is releasing its first eVTOL concepts (PDF) at the summit, with more to come.
The first, eCRM-001, has four sets of paired rotors for vertical lift and tilting wingtip propellers for vertical lift and forward thrust. Another concept, eCRM-003, has four sets of rotors for vertical flight and a tail-mounted propeller for cruise flight. The vehicle is supposed to cruise between 150 and 200 miles per hour, no more than 2,000 feet above ground. Uber hopes 60-mile-range-batteries will need just five minutes to recharge between flights. Initially, the vehicles will have a human pilot, but the idea is to eventually fly autonomously.
Just like Uber doesn’t build cars, it also has no intention of building these things. The company just wants to be the middle man connecting aircraft and passengers with a mobile app. They will only be able to scale the network if it can support vehicles from a variety of manufacturers. That’s why it created the Common Reference Model: to show specs and features that would allow different aircraft to share infrastructure.
Speaking of infrastructure, how would flying cars affect the real estate industry? Would they land on rooftops to recharge and pick-up passengers? Would real estate developers start building landing pads atop apartment buildings and offices? Would that require a second lobby or a ride-share waiting room? Would landing pads be integrated into existing transit hubs for easy connections?
Last year at Realcomm I participated in a fireside chat with Max Crowley, Uber’s 25th employee and the current head of its B2B product. He’s leading a team that’s doing things like setting up ride-sharing programs for businesses to offer their employees. He explained how architects and developers are already considering ride-hailing platforms like Uber and Lyft when they’re designing new buildings. He said, “We realized that we could do more than just help individuals get transportation, we could also help businesses and cities achieve their goals.”
With cities increasingly blaming ride-hailing services for congestion and the displacement of cab drivers, Uber’s ambitious project could potentially find a niche in some urban locales. But a lot has to happen between now and then. Besides designing and building these things, there is sure to be major regulatory hurdles to climb before we finally sit down in our long overdue flying cars.