Uber Elevate: Air-taxi service still grounded by earthbound problems

Uber Elevate: Air-taxi service still grounded by earthbound problems

Uber’s annual Elevate conference kicks off in Los Angeles today, at which the company will provide further details of its ‘UberAIR’ plans to take to the sky with fleets of aerial taxis.

The scheme is part of Uber’s strategy to become a frictionless hub for all kinds of connected transport, from driverless cars to electric bikes and existing public networks.

Alongside a keynote from CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, the event features senior speakers from NASA, central and local government, the aeronautics sector, and more.

A vertical future

In 2016, Uber published a detailed, 98-page white paper setting out its vision of autonomous aerial transport. It said: “On-demand aviation has the potential to radically improve urban mobility, giving people back time lost in their daily commutes.

“A network of small electric aircraft that take off and land vertically will enable rapid, reliable transportation between suburbs and cities and, ultimately, within cities. The development of infrastructure to support an urban VTOL network will likely have significant cost advantages over heavy-infrastructure approaches, such as roads, rail, bridges, and tunnels.”

Uber suggested that the repurposed roofs of parking garages, existing helipads, and brownfield sites near highway interchanges could form the basis of distributed network of ‘vertiports’ or single-aircraft ‘vertistops’.

“As costs for traditional infrastructure options continue to increase, the lower cost and increased flexibility provided by these new approaches may provide compelling options for cities and states around the world,” it added.

Speaking on CBS This Morning yesterday, Khosrowshahi stressed that he believes the future is vertical, “We think cities are going to go vertical in terms of transportation and we want to make that a reality. So we think that you can actually build these vehicles that are going to carry four people,” he said.

Uber’s vision, from its white paper.

The China syndrome

Uber and other Western companies are lagging behind Asia in the quest to build connected aerial transport networks. For example, in February this year Chinese company EHANG carried out the first public demonstration of a pilotless 184 air-taxi carrying a single passenger: its own CEO, Huazhi Hu. Other test-flight passengers have included the deputy mayor of Guangzhou and more than 150 technical engineers.

Yet one of the barriers to this future vision – alongside a conservative aerospace culture and regulations in the US, Europe, and the UK – is the lack of lightweight, long-range, fast-charging battery technologies. However, recent announcements in the field have suggested that these problems are at the earliest stages of being solved.

Another challenge is that unmanned aerial technology has multiple points of failure. Speaking earlier this year about the EHang tests, UK aerial robotics expert Jim Scanlan, director of design at Southampton University’s Computational Engineering Design Centre (CEDC), said, “It’s funny that they’re coffin sized and coffin-shaped.

“A rotary-wing, battery-powered, unmanned system has lots of single points of failure, so I wouldn’t climb into one myself. And I fly lots of single-engined aircraft quite happily, because I know I could still fly if the engine failed.”

Back down to earth

But long before Uber’s Elevate/UberAIR project can become a daily reality for billions of people, Khosrowshahi has some more earthbound difficulties to contend with – and these point the way ahead to a future filled with obstacles for the company.

The first is a report published by The Information, which suggests that March’s fatal accident involving an autonomous Uber Volvo striking a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, was caused by a software problem.

Quoting unnamed sources close to the investigation, the report suggests that while Uber’s perception systems were working properly, the onboard software was primed to ignore false positives from minor obstacles, such as a plastic bag in the road, but was set to disregard too much data – a problem compounded by the safety driver not looking at the road in the moments before impact.

Speaking on CBS yesterday, Khosrowshahi deflected the report, saying that, while software may have contributed to the accident, it was “too soon” to determine the cause. “We want the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] to move forward with their investigation. It is their job to determine who or what was at fault. We don’t want to get in their way,” he said.

“What I’m doing is a top-to-bottom audit of our procedures, training, software, hardware, and what our practices are, so that I can be comfortable and our board of directors can be comfortable, that when we get back on the road, we get back in a responsible and safe manner.”

Indeed, Uber has put its money where its mouth is by hiring former NTSB Chair Christopher Hart this week to advise the company on its overall safety culture. “Our review is looking at everything from the safety of our system to our training processes for vehicle operators, and we hope to have more to say soon,” said the company.

The second problem, while not directly related, is certainly part of the environment in which Uber now finds itself – partly as a result of what many view as its ‘Wild West’ approach to business.

The company has continued consolidating its Southeast Asian operations, where it is pulling out its app from local competition, in return for a financial stake in local provider, Grab. However, despite the company’s decisive action, local competition authorities in the region have yet to complete their review of the deal – yet another example of the company believing it has a right to act, regardless of local lawmakers.

Internet of Business says

Uber’s combative ‘love us or hate us’ approach (which saw it lose its ride-share licence in Brighton, UK, this month, as well as London last year) is indicative of problems that Chinese companies largely don’t face – at least, not on their home soil.

While China, Singapore, Japan, and Dubai are able to create an environment for ambitious transport schemes with relatively few cultural and legal obstacles, the more conservative approach of the US, the UK, and Europe to crowded skies and public safety are likely to hamper their progress in the West.

And authorities will point to fatalities and other failures of driverless technologies this year as evidence for that caution, along with the dangers of any pilotless system being hacked. Not to mention the risks that a sky full of low-flying autonomous aircraft might present to everyone not on the public highway, such as pedestrians, or buildings such as homes, schools, offices, power stations, and hospitals.

While companies like Tesla, Waymo, and others have – with occasional lapses – favoured a more collaborative, softly-softly approach to getting the authorities onside, Uber’s strategy has long been to ride into town with all guns blazing and force authorities to engage with them. But with aerial transport, that approach isn’t going to work. Local taxi drivers might present a challenge of one sort, but civil aviation authorities are a different order of magnitude. They can’t simply be shunted to one side.

Let’s hope the Elevate conference this week reveals a more collaborative, listening version of Uber. Internet of Business will bring you any further news from the conference as it emerges.

Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton is former editor of Internet of Business, and now a key contributor to the title. He specialises in robotics, AI, the IoT, blockchain, and technology strategy. He is also former editor of Computing, Computer Business Review, and Professional Outsourcing, among others, and is a contributing editor to Diginomica, Computing, and Hack & Craft News. Over the years, he has also written for Computer Weekly, The Guardian, The Times, PC World, I-CIO, V3, The Inquirer, and Blockchain News, among many others. He is an acknowledged robotics expert who has appeared on BBC TV and radio, ITN, and Talk Radio, and is probably the only tech journalist in the UK to own a number of humanoid robots, which he hires out to events, exhibitions, universities, and schools. Chris has also chaired conferences on robotics, AI, IoT investment, digital marketing, blockchain, and space technologies, and has spoken at numerous other events.