The Future, Part 1: At CES, Uber's plans for an air taxi unfold

Bell's nExus electric, carbon fiber air taxi, on display at CES. Bell is working with Uber and its Elevate project.
Bell's nExus electric, carbon fiber air taxi, on display at CES. Bell is working with Uber and its Elevate project. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Travel's duality, its yin/yang, was on stark display at CES (formerly the Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas last week.

The world's largest trade show, with 182,000 attendees and more than 4,400 exhibitors, had one row of booths marked "Travel." Our self-proclaimed "largest industry in the world" had just six booths, four of them luggage manufacturers.

The Scoocase, a suitcase with a built-in electric scooter that can go 15 miles per hour.
The Scoocase, a suitcase with a built-in electric scooter that can go 15 miles per hour. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

And of the 1,100 speakers on the program, only two -- Delta CEO Ed Bastian and Carnival Corp. chief experience and innovation officer John Padgett -- were from a company that readers of Travel Weekly regularly book. (Bastian was a keynoter; Padgett was on the panel "Technology's Innovators and Disruptors.") That's down from four speakers last year, when I moderated a panel that included Hilton, United and Savioke, a company that makes robots for hotels.

But travel was nonetheless present, if not always labeled as such. I found dozens of products that would be useful to travelers and listened to several speakers whose insights had relevance to our industry.

The dual nature of travel I reference above is the divide between transportation and experience. Aviation and auto transportation had a significant booth presence at CES.

The brands that travelers book for vacations? None.

The presentation I ultimately found most compelling was titled, "Flying taxis -- build them, but will they come?"
Among the panelists were Tom Prevot, Uber's director of engineering for airspace systems; David Rottblatt, business development director for EmbraerX; and Julia Richman, chief innovation and technology officer for the city of Boulder, Colo.

Tom Prevot of Uber and David Rottblatt of EmbraerX spoke on the panel, "Flying taxis -- build them, but will they come?"
Tom Prevot of Uber and David Rottblatt of EmbraerX spoke on the panel, "Flying taxis -- build them, but will they come?" Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

Uber had already announced its intention to build flying taxis (Uber Elevate), but it became clear it's a more challenging project than building a ride-sharing platform app or even designing the physical air taxi. And whereas Uber often resisted municipal regulation of its car, bike and scooter services, it and potential air taxi manufacturers have preemptively said they want host communities to tell them how -- and if -- they want to be served.

Acceptance is not taken for granted.

"We won't necessarily be in Greenwich, Conn., or even Boston," Rottblatt said. "A natural progression will take us where we need to be."
The regulation of airspace requires interaction with the federal government, and the physical profile of a city -- how high its buildings reach -- means flying patterns will have to be customized.

"A partnership model is essential," Richman said, pointing out that rules will have to be established regarding rights of way for first-responders.

When the service scales, the skies of cities may resemble the aerial pathways of Orbit City (you know, where the Jetsons live). Uber is predicting a liftoff from each "vertiport" every 24 seconds, and they won't be the only ones in the air, since multiple drone delivery services are also anticipated.

The service will be closer to Uber Pool than Uber Select, with strangers sharing rides. But to make air taxis (or "eVTOLS," for electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles) attractive, they will have to be more convenient than ground transportation. People won't want to walk very far at either end of their flight.

To me, that sounded like the biggest challenge. Will cities give up parkland and playgrounds for vertiports? Will neighborhoods want these potentially noisy neighbors? (Noise reduction is among the factors motivating development of electric aircraft.)

Rottblatt felt that the details regarding regulations, technology and even infrastructure are secondary to community needs and concerns; he said the next phase is dialogue with host cities.

I sat down with Rottblatt after the panel to go over the minutiae. His division, EmbraerX, is a 10-person team funded by Brazilian airplane manufacturer Embraer to explore new business opportunities.

Los Angeles and Dallas have already signed on to be in Uber's pilot program, with service beginning in 2023. And it will initially be a literal "pilot" program. Although Uber hopes for autonomous eVTOLs one day, federal regulations and passenger preferences mean it will not launch that way.

There is an expectation that the rapid training of many additional pilots will be another necessary piece of this puzzle.

I asked if the roofs of tall buildings could serve as vertiports to solve the real estate challenges. While Rottblatt felt some buildings occupied by large-scale employers could work, it's not the model.

"Taking an elevator and sitting in a lounge is not it," he said.

EmbraerX is in the process of looking at materials, finding an electric propulsion supplier and getting the right combination of redundant technologies to build a prototype. Rotorcraft manufacturer Bell, also working with Uber, displayed its (extremely cool!) eVTOL at CES.

While Rottblatt allowed that "2023 is realistic for an urban air mobility industry to exist," he cautioned that "a lot will have to align to make it happen: a platform, a certified manufacturer and a city that's ready."

It's interesting that transportation, the aspect of travel that's often viewed as a necessary evil, is demonstrating a robust interest in the "experience" side of travel, to the point that EmbraerX gives consumers tools to configure their ideal eVTOL on its website. ()

"All that information -- expectations about egress, where they want to see the blades -- is captured," Rottblatt said. "It may not coincide with the ultimate design, but we want to make sure what we build is accessible and inviting."

Next week: Carnival's Padgett on innovation in cruising.


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