Uber's Self-Flying Air Taxi Dreams Are a Delusional Fantasy
Claims of hundreds of electric, autonomous UberAir taxis zooming from rooftop to rooftop every hour are theoretically possible. Just not by 2023.
Journey with me back to the bygone era of 2004. At the time, I was the aviation editor at Popular Science, and among the many futuristic visions I covered was a particularly revolutionary reimagining of air travel. It proposed Internet-based on-demand booking of small jets that would allow regular folks to hop between local airports economically and efficiently, bypassing the dreadful hubs that are the hallmark of commercial air travel. It would capitalize on a new generation of compact, affordable aircraft, and use complex algorithms that would enable the immediate summoning of airplanes straight to the closest airport and create a precise ballet of shuffling passengers in the skies. Its creators called it an “air taxi” system—a term you might have heard recently.
This was no mere PowerPoint vision; it was a very real idea, advanced by respected software engineer and Citrix founder Ed Iacobucci. His company, DayJet, launched with $61 million in venture capital funding and hundreds of employees. Iacobucci ordered 28 light jets from Eclipse Aviation, itself a game-changing startup. Eclipse was founded by former Microsoft executive Vern Raburn, who was hell-bent on democratizing jet travel through innovative, compact aircraft that would cost less than a million dollars each—a third the price of its closest competitors.
Both companies drew heaping praise in the media for their visionary mindsets. There were smart people involved in every aspect of these efforts. The hardware and software existed, and the infrastructure—underutilized, easily-accessible airports in thousands of communities across the nation—was already present and eager to be part of the solution.
Come 2018, however, DayJet is but a distant memory. Iacobucci, who died in 2013, had to cease operations in 2008 after burning through his capital and being unable to secure more. Eclipse Aviation—the company DayJet hung many of its promises on—is an even more painful memory. Raburn had secured investments based on a promise of low-cost manufacturing that proved unattainable; business jet manufacturers had been wrestling with costs for decades, and no magic wand from Silicon Valley could erase the challenges. An ugly bankruptcy laid waste to the company—by then $750 million in debt—and left the 259 customers who bought the jets with pricey, perilously-unsupported aircraft.
Remember, these collapses were just 10 years ago—hardly a truly bygone era in business, or even technology. In hindsight, the presumed benefit of having Silicon Valley-bred tech entrepreneurs at the helm—applying their forward-thinking mindsets to what they were convinced was a dinosaur of an industry—yielded precisely zilch. Everything about these failures smacked of Pollyanna-ish, if not delusional, business planning, with no grounding in the complex realities of aviation.
A decade later, precious little has changed in aviation. In fact, the only things separating us from that era is one global recession that muffled much of the rebirth-of-aviation chatter, and about a million smartphone apps that have re-convinced everyone in the tech world that they have the Midas Touch. As a result of this—and what can only be described as willful ignorance—we’re here again. Air taxis, or at least the idea of them, are back, thanks to a variety of startups trying to develop battery-electric vertical-lift aircraft (i.e. people-carrying quadcopters) in place of DayJet’s actual airplanes. And Uber is leading the charge.
Uber’s second Elevate Summit, which occurred a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, brought together 700 “on-demand aviation leaders in industry, government, and academia” to map out the steps to ubiquitous aerial ride-sharing. The company is so optimistic—at least publicly—about this vision that it showed off its four-seat, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) air taxi concept, breathlessly announced a search for an international “pilot city” to test the program, and sponsored a competition for architecture firms to design urban “skyports” capable of handling 4,000 passengers per hour. (The early designs, widely circulated online along with images of the company’s spindly air taxi concept that looks more nautical than aeronautical, show massive high-rises with multiple landing pads.)
Let’s mull that detail alone for a second: 4,000 passengers per hour. At four passengers per aircraft, it represents 1,000 arrivals and departures, which means 500 aircraft total—per hour—buzzing around these towers. For comparison, the busiest airport in the world, Atlanta International, can only manage 184 flights per hour. True, that’s not an apples-to-apples analogy, but the point is fair; Uber thinks it will be able to move a lot of people around every hour, and an awful lot has to go right for them to get anywhere close.
Though these bulbous urban beehives are more of a long-term goal than a realistic starting point, Uber will nevertheless need the same general pieces seen in the concept in place from the get-go: production electric aircraft (that don’t actually exist right now); batteries with high enough energy density to make electric aviation even remotely practical (and which by some accounts are still 30 years off); new autonomous flight capability that will allow Uber to avoid having to pay highly-trained human pilots competitive salaries in a market already anticipating a huge shortage of pilots in coming decades; an equally-new air traffic control system to manage hundreds of autonomous air taxis flying in close proximity; the regulatory consent that experience suggests will only come with confirmation of the system’s inherent safety; and, of course, the money to make it all happen—either Uber’s own (essentially nonexistent) cash or the money of the aerospace companies and tech startups it’s coaxing into developing the systems on their own.
Astonishingly, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi announced at the conference that he expects to muscle all of this into place so fast that the company could have demonstration flights of UberAir (as the company has dubbed the forthcoming service) by 2020, and commercial deployment beginning in 2023. He hedged a bit in the details, indicating the service would use pilots rather than (again, nonexistent) autonomous systems at the outset, for instance; but in a Q&A with The Verge, Khosrowshahi seemed otherwise confident that everything is progressing swimmingly toward that goal. Similarly, the company’s own 2016 white paper on on-demand urban air transportation laid out—with admirable thoroughness, it should be noted—all of the challenges facing electric, autonomous VTOL air taxi operations. But it also persistently swatted them away with reckless “insert miracle here” thinking and presumptions of success on every challenge, from technological to regulatory to economic.
None of this should pass scrutiny in any competent VC boardroom. Nor should Uber’s claims be taken at face value by the public and the media (that said, many outlets are fully skeptical and realistic about the challenges). From my own wizened perspective as someone who’s seen this industry fly (or not) up close, it feels appropriate, frankly, to finally and urgently call bullshit on UberAir right now.
Not because its vision is impossible. The different technological elements that would comprise the system are all in assorted pipelines and reasonably sound, and the personnel involved—including Mark Moore, a 30-year veteran of NASA aviation and air transport research efforts now leading the UberAir R&D effort—are above reproach. Instead, we need to call bullshit on these claims because Uber is making promises about packaging up all those advances on a timeline it won’t be able to fulfill.
“We’re seeing a real-time, brutal demonstration of the ‘virtuous cycle’,” says Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with Teal Group. “They’re assuming economic success because the new system will allow people to fly at a lower price point. The thinking is that that will create massive demand that will in turn call for a massive number of aircraft, which can be built cheaply because you’re making so many of them. But it’s like Vern Raburn and the Eclipse—that logic attempts to create a virtuous cycle that doesn’t materialize. So in the end, economics are the real roadblock here. Capital equipment costs—these new VTOL air taxis—are going to be the biggest problem.”
Comparable examples of the raw challenges in aerospace, even beyond Eclipse and DayJet, are ridiculously easy to find. Consider Virgin Galactic, the spaceflight company that Richard Branson launched in 2004 to fly space tourists on short suborbital hops to score great views and a few seconds of weightlessness. In the decade and a half since its founding, the company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and suffered the death of a test pilot in a crash, yet it hasn’t been able to send a single vehicle into space. All the company has to show for its efforts at the moment is a ghost town of a “spaceport” in New Mexico that it shamelessly conned the state’s government into supporting on the backs of impoverished local communities to the tune of $200 million in state investments. Far less ambitiously, you have Icon Aircraft, a startup that’s been struggling to keep its effort to create a fun, relatively affordable, easy-to-fly recreational aircraft on an even keel against steep funding struggles—most linked to the challenges of aircraft production. Can brand-new technology that requires advanced materials and manufacturing—as will be required for any new electric VTOL system—really be expected to do any better?
Which brings us to electric aviation in general. Getting an otherwise-conventional battery-powered airplane—which is far more efficient than a VTOL aircraft—to fly longer than a half-hour with more than a single passenger onboard has required industrial-strength R&D from everyone from aviation giant Airbus to the brains behind the Solar Impulse 2 aviation project; even so, the programs have yielded only limited results, and those in the know confess we’re still decades away from practical electric flight. In light of this, Uber’s claim to be able to launch a fully battery-powered air taxi in five years—and an autonomous version shortly after—is laughable.
“That combination might be feasible in 2100,” Aboulafia says. “But the idea of it happening in the next few decades? No.”
When you consider that the most any of these passenger-carrying battery-electric vehicles have accomplished so far are short, shaky hovers close to the ground, that laughter fades to a sinking realization that we’re all being conned like the citizens of New Mexico. Aboulafia has a pointed (and admittedly cynical) theory for that possibility, as well.
“Uber really needs a story to tell investors,” he says. “The same is true of the companies that are playing along—some of them just need a story to tell investors, or they want to simply prove they aren’t old-school. There are genuinely good actors involved, driven by a desire to advance the aeronautical arts, and there is light in the promise of simplicity in electric aviation. But the fact is that the tech-industry doesn’t seem to understand that Moore’s Law doesn’t apply to aerospace. It really doesn’t. You can’t just come in and disrupt aviation with utopian ideals. It doesn’t work like that.”
Here, then, is a perhaps disappointing prediction: Air travel 50 years from now is going to look an awful lot like it does now, and not all that different from how it looked 50 years ago. There’ll just be more of it. I say this as an aviation enthusiast, by the way—one who would like nothing more than to jump into an autonomous, electric air taxi and zip across town in six minutes. But the timeline that world will arrive on probably isn’t the one we want, no matter what Uber says.