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Uber says flying taxis ready in two to five years

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Flights could be running by 2020

Rendering of a four-engine flying vehicle Image courtesy of Uber, the Verge

The future is now, folks. San Francisco-based ride-hailing company Uber promises that it will have demo flights of its proposed flying-taxi network up and soaring by 2020, with general public access ready by 2023.

Uber dallied with outlandish prospects of app-enabled robot air taxis years ago and even hired a former NASA engineer to spearhead development in 2017; however, a company spokesperson cautioned Curbed SF last year that Uber was not committing to the technology just yet.

After largely abandoning its self-driving car program (at least for now), the possibility of flying Ubers seemed even more remote. But it appears the sky’s still the limit at this week’s Uber Elevate Summit in Los Angeles, which includes Uber’s head of aviation, NASA’s current associate administrator for aeronautics research, and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.

The Verge and Wired report on some pretty heady promises from Uber’s aerial honchos, including:

  • Believe it or not, Uber’s timeline calls for demonstration flights by 2020 (unchanged from last year) and literal service by 2023, although only in Dallas and Los Angeles. Whether or not Uber is forsaking its hometown of San Francisco for practical reasons, or just doesn’t want to wade into that regulatory cyclone, isn’t clear.
  • Vehicles will be electric, reach speeds of 200 miles per hour, cruise at around 2,000 feet, and employ lift technology similar to that of common drones. Initially piloted by humans, Uber hopes they will eventually become autonomous.
  • Note that Uber doesn’t want to build these aircrafts themselves. Rather, the business plan is for Uber to be the network connecting potential riders to someone else’s air taxis, and the company’s designs and the prototype on display in LA are meant as guidelines for whomever wants to do business with them in the future.
  • Customers will indeed be able to summon a flying car via the Uber app, although there will be a limited number of pick up and drop-off points, including on rooftops. In a 2016 white paper, the company proposed that a flight from San Francisco to San Jose would take roughly 15 minutes. The company estimates prices will be similar to its most expensive current services.

Of course, big promises and ambiguous payoffs are part of the name of the game in Silicon Valley, so customers will wait and see if Uber’s dreams take wing on schedule. But since the schedule is short, at least we don’t have to wait long.