Justin Erlich is Uber’s Head of Policy of Autonomous Vehicles and Urban Aviation. This division is in charge of everything that is not rideshare and eats, in other words, all of the Uber’s other businesses and research is under Erlich’s control; AV, Freight, and Flight. Thanks to Khosrowshahi, the Uber Waymo trial ended in a semi-triumph for Uber, where Erlich can now concentrate on full development of the AV as well as focus on Uber’s next greatest challenge: Air Supremacy under the Uber VTOL heading(Virtual Takeoff and Landing.)
Erlich comes from a rich past in policy making for emerging technologies, having worked under Attorney General Kamala Harris on these issues for the State of California. It was during his tenure in the AG's office that he met drones and pilot-less air technologies.
UberAir, which is currently in its infancy, covers the service of transporting people with economically sound solutions. When discussing UberAir, we are not referring to passenger transport such as airlines, but in personal transportation more closely related to helicopter services. The development of small personal air transport vehicles, or flying cars, is considered to be one of the next big steps in transport history, where people can find a quick solution to flying over traffic. Rather the rely on airstrips and airports, the concept for air-cars (VTOL) is their ability to transport a family from rooftop to rooftop.
Currently, the concept is operating from airstrip to airstrip, where passengers can find a personalized flying service far from a central airport, which relieves ground traffic issue. However, it is still an expensive affair, since airstrip fees, parking costs, maintenance and airplane fuel costs, as well as flight insurance, make small aircraft transportation an expensive business even for Uber.
Erich stated to the media that "Our hope and belief is that the time savings that you will get through air travel will incentivize people who might otherwise be used to the privacy of their own rides [being game] to share rides," He continued to state that "If you ask about what's the future of mobility — like when we have all these people wanting to move — we can think of these as packets of people and things moving in these really dense city areas. Everything will probably need to look like some form of fleets that are run by folks like Uber that are pooled with people sharing rides that are electric and eventually autonomous. I think that's the sort of vision that we're working towards both on the ground and in the air. And I think the shared ride is a huge part of that."
Uber is investing in developing a comprehensive solution to aircraft. They are focusing on air cars, a smaller and easier version of flight. The air-car is a small personalized unit, the size of a small helicopter but without the large rotor blades and has wings. Air Cars are small VTOL's, and while flying is still regulated by the FAA, Uber sees a future where AV's will also control aircraft. Until then, only licensed pilots will be allowed to fly Uber Air cars.
The Uber air car uses a DEP technology; this is distributed electric propulsion, which is a lot of small rotors working in synchronicity and provide better control and functionality as well as safety during flight. With more rotors working in unison, even if one or two fail, the craft has time to make a safe landing. They are also much quieter than helicopters, small enough to take off and land from a confined space. As Erlich said "We can sort of imagine, it is a much better, quieter, safer, more efficient helicopter. So, part of the focus in that area is how do we make this seem more real and sort of capture what is actually the substance of the technology."
Once Uber's dream of air hopping becomes a regulated reality the next big change in the world will be prime property locations. Rather than concentrating on landing strips or centralized VTOL areas, every rooftop and garden can become an UberAir point. This means, that once Uber manages to create a viable solution to air travel, where the FAA regulates UberAir and pilot are abundant, any roof will become a prime property location. This will make UberAir a true door to door solution provider, where a customer can take a short ride to the roof, or request a ride from a garden, and then land on the roof of their destination. This will also lead to a major change in architecture and construction engineering, where roofs will become landing zones.
Ehrlich also commented on this issue "I think that the rooftop in the future can be an asset that we can really unlock by allowing new forms of travel."
While the UberAir future will change skylines, it will, in fact, change much more.
Once AV becomes a reality, and the FAA incorporates AV planes, traffic and congestion will become a thing of the past. Balancing travel between ground and air, all controlled by computer systems in a grid of traffic, will make gridlock a thing of the past and provide easy access to anywhere in the world. It will eventually lead to a truly "border-less" world, where traveling from your home to work could mean flying for an hour from one country to another and not by driving from one side of a city to the other side.
Erlich commented on this too and said "I think we'll see a lot of flexibility and what it could look like and, in part, that has to do with our infrastructure needs over the next 10 years, will probably change dramatically. Our goal is we want to be as flexible as possible to make sure that we can basically be working with a whole host of partners who will be developing this potential infrastructure."
He went on to state "So I think integrating that into the core center of cities, I think will be a really exciting policy topic in the years to come."
Uber is expecting to start its first "pilot" in Dallas and LA around 2020. Starting by a designated rooftop to rooftop service and by 2023 launching commercial flights.
Ehrlich realizes that transportation is a complex issue, where accessibility is important as technology. Enabling people of every walk-in life, from the fully disabled to the Athlete, from the third world poor to the Silicon Valley billionaire to access the same infrastructure is a complex and full collaborative affair. Uber cannot and will not be alone in this endeavor. It needs to cooperate with local, state and federal establishments as well as prepare the correct accessibility infrastructure that will lead to massive changes in Urban planning. The bottom line is perhaps two decades away, but the future cityscape will be totally alien to what we see now.