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Uber Is Speeding Up the Race to Bring Taxis to the Sky

It’s a new space race of sorts–but there are still plenty of details to consider

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BY Elizabeth Kiehner - 17 May 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The future of transportation is ride sharing in the skies. Last week Uber unveiled its flying taxi prototype, designed like a giant drone, at the company's second Elevate summit. Uber aims to launch UberAIR's demo flights in 2020. From there, flights between cities would begin in 2023 starting with Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth.

CEO Dara Khosrowshahi admits launching the air taxis by that deadline is ambitious, but Uber has opened up a contest to find the third city to debut its flying taxi technology, according to Reuters. Cities with a metropolitan population of greater than 2 million people can apply.

Wired reported that FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell spoke at Uber's annual Elevate Summit in Los Angeles. The FAA stressed that compared to smaller drones, the path to regulating human flight is likely to be both complex and time consuming. Elwell said the agency will focus on safety first in regulating the transport of people via the electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft proposed by Uber.

Beyond the FAA's POV, Uber's architect and design partners showed off concepts of the skyports at the Elevate conference as well, which at least one publication described as "straight out of Star Wars."

"Some of the designs aim to retrofit existing buildings with landing pads, to help keep costs low and improve the project's chances of scaling citywide," the Verge reported.

From a user experience standpoint, Skyports will need to handle around 1,000 movements per hour, which is a challenging requirement from the standpoint of both logistics and air traffic control. Architecture firms might have a field day dreaming up what the future will look like for Uber's flying cars. When you think about the environmental impact, carbon footprint, and increased traffic in our sky lines, there are clearly some trade-offs that need to be considered. Uber's aircraft will be electrically powered, but other competitors may not be.

Flying taxi service SKYRYDE, launched this week in Southern California, SKYRYDE combines commercial pilots with privately-owned 4-passenger aircraft to give consumers an alternative to the headache of driving in heavy traffic at prices that are just a bit more than an Uber or Lyft. This unique model allows adaptive service and dynamic scheduling for executive and corporate travelers. SKYRYDE's craft and pilots uphold and adhere to the same FAA standards and inspections as major airlines. Customers will make a natural comparison to Uber.

So who will win this space race?

As adoption grows for SKYRYDE, the firm plans to eventually transition from small aircraft toward more efficient and innovative aeronautical technology, like drones. SKYRYDE is proving the flying taxi concept early with traditional smaller commercial passenger planes and pilots to gain an early following, along with the trust of regulators and folks like you and me. The company is represented by the same legal team that works with Uber Elevate and Blade.

Before anyone can win this space race, several key questions will need to be answered. Will aerial taxi services be designed in a scalable and inclusive way, or will they simply be for luxury travelers? Will the traffic on the freeways be exchanged for traffic in the skies? What will weather delays do to this kind of service? These questions and more in this highly competitive landscape.

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