Uber is really serious about flying cars, and Dallas could be first city to test them
Three years from now, Dallas could be testing out its own version of The Jetsons cartoon with flying taxis shuttling through the skies.
At least that’s the grand vision of Uber, the San Francisco ride-hailing company that unveiled an aggressive six-year goal for rolling out small aircraft that could be used on demand throughout the region.
Uber announced Tuesday that Dallas-Fort Worth is the first location in the U.S. chosen for Uber Elevate, an effort to build a network of on-demand flying cars or VTOLs (vertical take off and landing) aircraft. Uber's chief product officer Jeff Holden said testing will begin in Dallas-Fort Worth by 2020.
Flying cars are latest craze in Silicon Valley, with more than a dozen startups seeking to develop them. Holden said they are one more way Uber is pushing the envelope in transportation, citing its efforts to bring autonomous vehicles into its fleet.
But some in the aviation industry are skeptical about the practicality or desirability of flying taxis.
Perhaps most pressing would be safety issues that arise when more than a single one of these proposed aircraft take to the skies above a heavily populated urban area, said aviation consultant Robert Mann.
“Why would you ever want to be up in an aerial vehicle with the same people you roll your eyes at when they drive by on the street?” Mann said. “It’s bad enough when they drive, could you imagine having that much potential energy at your command over an urban area?”
Uber said it will have the safety issues ironed out before it begins demonstrations of several aircraft in Dallas by 2020. And by about three years later, the company said it expects to have the new mode of transportation certified and available for Dallas residents.
Why Dallas was picked
Those involved with the project said there were many reasons Dallas was chosen for the trial.
“Dallas has a fantastic history with aviation,” said Mark Moore, a longtime NASA engineer hired by Uber as its engineering director for aviation. He rattled off the names of companies such as American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Bell Helicopter, which all are based in the region. “It’s a very aviation-friendly and forward-thinking city.”
Moore said Uber’s first goal will be persuading the public by showing off electric flying vehicles with high safety, an appealing look and a low level of noise.
Uber revealed its ambitious plan at a three-day conference in downtown Dallas, which began Tuesday. The conference drew about 400 aviation and technology professionals and government officials. The company also announced that it’s working with five companies on the aircraft: Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter, Kerrville-based Mooney International, Virginia-based Aurora Flight Sciences, Slovenia-based Pipistrel Aircraft and Sao Paulo-based Embraer.
Dubai has also been chosen to test the flying vehicles. Uber plans to show them off at an expo there in 2020, Holden said.
"The race is on,” Holden said. “It’s a sprint in Dallas and Dubai to get to scale. ...We’re just going to see how fast we can run it, how fast we can get it to reality.”
Uber has been talking to city officials for months, as well as those with DFW International Airport, Fort Worth Alliance Airport and Dallas Love Field.
On Twitter, people both cheered the announcement and poked fun at it. Some speculated the ride-hailing company used flashy news to distract the public from its woes on the ground.
The announcement comes after months of bad publicity at Uber, including allegations of sexual harassment. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who is at the center of much of the controversy, was noticeably absent from the conference.
Uber said it envisions a future when people could turn hours-long, stop-and-go commutes between city centers and suburbs into a minutes-long flight. In a 97-page white paper, it imagines a fleet of small, electric aircraft that can take off and land vertically at so-called vertiports, which could be anything from helipads, unused land near highways or the tops of parking garages. They would have rapid charging stations and would range in size.
Holden said that Uber is well-suited to kick off use of VTOLs because its business model allows for economies of scale that make the technology more affordable. He said the alternate mode of transportation could free up land for other city uses, like affordable houses and bike lanes -- something that he says ride-hailing is helping with, too.
In Dallas-Fort Worth, real estate developer Hillwood will build vertiports for the flying vehicles. The company’s chairman Ross Perot Jr. said the developer will focus on hubs of activity, such as Arlington's entertainment and sports district and American Airlines Center in downtown Dallas. He said Dallas is a great fit for the project because of its rapid growth and large population of pilots.
Despite Uber’s enthusiasm, aviation veteran Mann, the president of R.W. Mann & Co., said a certified, on-demand and off-the-shelf flying vehicle is still a “pipe dream at this point.”
“The flying car has been the public’s fancy since about the 1920s,” he said.
“Nothing that’s happened since then has really placed it any closer to being more than aspirational.”
In Uber’s own white paper, it acknowledged large barriers. Among the hurdles: approval by the US Federal Aviation Administration and European Aviation Safety Agency; the need for lighter, longer-lasting electric batteries; air traffic control to handle higher density of aircraft; and the high cost of operations.
And then there are regulatory issues, which alone could scuttle plans to be airborne by 2020. Mann said the FAA currently doesn’t have design standards for hardware or software that would be used in these types of vehicles. Developing them would take years.
Mann pointed to the challenges faced by the drone industry, which has been slowed down as the FAA adopts new rules and procedures.
At Uber’s conference Tuesday, Michael Thacker, an executive vice president for Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter, said addressing safety concerns will be essential. “We have to ask ourselves ‘Am I ready to get into this aircraft with my 10-year-old daughter. Is my neighbor?”
In a statement, the FAA said it’s taking a “flexible, risk-based approach to integrating innovative new technologies into the world's busiest, most complex, and safest aviation system.”
It said it’s working on rules around automation in drones that could later apply to autonomous flying car designs.