Jun 12, 2019

Uber's lofty flying taxi plan

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Uber looked more like an aviation company than a ride-sharing provider at a conference this week where it was showcasing concepts and partnerships as it tries to seed an ecosystem to support the world's first urban air taxi network.

The big picture: Barely a decade old, Uber today is synonymous with ride-hailing. But the company is creeping further into daily life, with ambitions to help manage everything from how people get to work to what meals they order when they get home.

Between the lines: Speaking Tuesday to an audience at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said...

  • "We really want to move from being a ride-hailing app to essentially being your transportation partner."
  • His vision is to have a multi-modal Uber transportation network that, with a push of a button, helps people plan how to get from A to B, balancing tradeoffs like time, convenience and price.
  • Uber doesn't just want to move people — this morning, the company announced it will start testing drone food delivery in urban areas.

Yes, but: Serious obstacles stand in the way of flying cars, including regulations, infrastructure and air traffic management issues, not to mention consumer acceptance and safety, Deloitte's Robin Lineberger tells Axios.

  • "They will be a legitimate part of a multi-modal transportation system, in 20 to 30 years," he says.

Driving the news: At its third annual Uber Elevate conference, the company showcased vertical takeoff and landing models from 5 potential suppliers, including a full-size model from Bell that looks like a cross between a plane and a helicopter.

  • Attendees could climb into a mockup of a cabin interior built by the French aerospace company Safran or strap on virtual reality headsets to experience what a flying taxi ride would be like.
  • Uber said Melbourne, Australia, would be its first international pilot site for Uber Air, after Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth in the United States, starting in 2020.
  • And it showcased 16 potential designs for urban skyports, where flying taxis would take off and land.

Uber wants to "get the industry moving and designing these vehicles so that they can be available for urban transportation," Khosrowshahi said. "We want the pricing of this service to be ultimately available for the masses versus just the elites."

So far, it looks out of reach for most. A new 8-minute Uber helicopter shuttle between Manhattan and John F. Kennedy Airport is expected to cost $200 when it launches next month.

  • In the wake of a helicopter crash this week on the roof of a building in Manhattan, some lawmakers want to see a ban on such flights.
  • And some argue it overshadows existing transit reform efforts.

The bottom line: The market for air taxis is expected to grow from $3.4 billion in 2025 to $17.7 billion by 2040, according to Deloitte, and for newly public Uber, which lost $1 billion in the first quarter of 2019, that opportunity is hard to pass up.

  • "We think it’s time to lean forward," Khosrowshahi says. "The business is well positioned to profit. But the next 2, 3, 4 years are going to be about growth."

Go deeper:

Editor's note: This piece has been updated to clarify the timing of Uber’s $1 billion loss.

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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

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  4. World updates: Spain’s confirmed cases surpassed 100,000, and the nation saw its biggest daily death toll so far. More than 500 people were reported dead within the last 24 hours in the U.K., per Johns Hopkins.
  5. State updates: Florida and Pennsylvania are the latest states to issue stay-at-home orders — Michigan has more than 9,000 confirmed cases, an increase of 1,200 and 78 new deaths in 24 hours.
  6. Stock market updates: Stocks closed more than 4% lower on Wednesday, continuing a volatile stretch for the stock market amid the coronavirus outbreak.
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