When Uber first announced its crazy-sounding plan to explore “on-demand urban aviation” — essentially a network of flying taxis that could be hailed via a smartphone app and flown from rooftop to rooftop — the company made it clear that it never intended to go it alone.
Today, as it kicked off its three-day Elevate conference in Dallas, Texas, the ride-hail company announced a slew of partnerships with cities, aviation manufacturers, real estate, and electric charging companies, in its effort to bring its dream of flying cars a little closer to reality.
Uber said it will be teaming up with the governments of Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai to bring its flying taxis to those cities first. It is also joining forces with real estate firm Hilwood Properties in Dallas-Fort Worth to identify sites where it will build takeoff and landing pads, which Uber calls “vertiports.” It has signed contracts (or is in the midst of contract negotiations) with five aircraft manufacturers to work on the design and production of lightweight, electrically powered vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft. And it launched a partnership with an electric charging company called ChargePoint, to develop charging stations for Uber’s flying taxis.
It’s a flurry of activity that’s meant to signal that Uber is serious about adding flying taxis to its list of outlandish, quasi-impractical, always ambitious projects for the future. (See also its self-driving car experiments.) The company said it is aiming to publicly demonstrate its first flying taxi service in 2020, which is a lot sooner than you think, considering a lot of the technology hasn’t been validated. And Uber is a company known for cutting corners and flaunting regulations in its mad dash sprint to disrupt transportation and grab market share. All of which raises the question: who’s going to want to fly with Uber?
If today’s announcement is any indication, the answer is plenty of people. Bell Helicopters, one of the largest manufacturers of commercial and military vertical takeoff vehicles in the US (they produce both the V-22 Osprey and the forthcoming V-280 Valor), says it will be working with Uber on its flying taxi idea. “We’re very excited to be collaborating with them,” Mitch Snyder, CEO of Bell Helicopter, told The Verge on Monday.
Standing next to his futuristic concept helicopter, the FCX-001, in the lobby of his Fort Worth-based company, Snyder said Uber’s reputation shouldn’t be a concern in relation to this project. “I can’t comment on their headlines,” Snyder said. “What I can comment on is Bell and our integrity. We’re going to provide safe vehicles going forward. We’re going to work with Uber. We’re going to collaborate with them. It’s an exciting opportunity.”
In addition to Bell, Uber says it plans to work with a handful of small aircraft manufacturers like Aurora Flight Sciences, Pipistrel Aircraft, Embraer, and Mooney. Executives from these companies will be speaking more about their collaboration with Uber during the Elevate summit in Dallas.
According to Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer, flying taxis represent “the pinnacle of urban mobility — the reduction of congestion and pollution from transportation, giving people their time back, freeing up real estate dedicated to parking and providing access to mobility in all corners of a city.”
Uber has been under a cloud lately as a result of an internal investigation into a culture of harassment and sexism, as well as a major lawsuit filed by a subsidiary of Google alleging the theft of the search giant’s automated vehicle technology. The almost daily onslaught of bad news, as well as revelations about the ride-hail company’s multi-billion losses in 2016, have raised questions about Uber’s ability to survive long enough to realize its futuristic dreams. The news today about Uber’s aggressive schedule on flying taxis could be interpreted as a literal attempt to rise above and fly away from its latest bout of troubles.