The company announced an on-demand fully electric vertical takeoff and landing flying car service

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On November 8th at Web Summit in Lisbon, Uber Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden used his full twenty minutes with thousands of journalists and tens of thousands of attendees to detail the company’s plans for  … flying cars. Given the year Uber is experiencing, it might be understandable for Holden to try to divert attention away from some glaring issues. But Holden was deadly serious and added significant details to Uber’s previously announced plans to introduce a local air taxi service. Holden announced that Los Angeles will join Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai as pilot cities for the Uber Elevate service test in 2020. That’s the year that arrives in 25 months.

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Uber Elevate Concept Air Taxi

Uber is working with NASA and several aerospace and property development partners to get the pilot project off the ground. The schedule is no less aggressive than the pricing strategy Holden announced for the air taxi service: Uber Elevate will be price competitive with Uber X when it launches. That’s right: if your pick the right destination, you could ride in a VTOL aircraft for the same price as being ferried around in a hipster’s Prius.

To be realistic, there are a host of issues to work through in a short time. NASA was enlisted to create an air traffic control system that could allow liftoffs from numerous building rooftops without hindering commercial aviation or endangering the public. Finding suitable real estate for the launch pads and building a reasonable system for automating the check-in process are both potential stumbling points. And perhaps as daunting as all of these challenges combined is designing a new type of aircraft.  This is something that Bell Boeing and the U.S. armed forces had a great deal of difficulty with during the 25 years between the initiation of the experimental project for the V-22 Osprey and full-scale production.) Like the Osprey, this craft will need to take off like a helicopter but fly more like an airplane. Unlike the Osprey, it will need to do so with unparalleled reliability at a competitive commercial cost. And be significantly quieter than helicopters. And be adequately powered by multiple electric engines.

 

To be fair, Uber has some high profile partners, including Boeing, Bell Helicopter, Mooney and Embraer. And it is not surprising that a transportation company the size of Uber is looking to the skies for growth. Along with Elon Musk’s hyper-loop project and a handful of other mass transit gambits, the airspace over urban areas is one of the few remaining possibilities for transformational growth in urban mobility. But the timeline seems impossible. Unless it isn’t.

Realistic or not, the project represents a significant diversion of resources for Uber, even in the short term. The question is, why is Uber pursuing this so hard? Is it simply the unrealistic nature of a Silicon Valley unicorn? Or perhaps that’s not the right question to ask.

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Instead of wondering how Uber can afford to pursue this plan, it may be fairer to ask whether they can afford not to. The reality is that Uber is an untenable strategic position that shows no signs of getting better. After years of enjoying unlimited growth and hobbled competition, the service is losing some of its structural and technological advantages. Reaching for the skies may be an attempt to find another temporary monopoly.

We have waited a long, long time for this let alone dual electric and diesel car engines, so you can inch up in that jam in an electric way

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