Uber’s ambitious project to take ground traffic to the air via small aircraft or flying taxis might be coming to one of India’s big cities—Bengaluru, Delhi or Mumbai, in the next few years. That is if they manage to navigate the regulatory and infrastructure hurdles. But Uber is upbeat about it.
In August, the San Francisco-based ride-hailing company said it had shortlisted five countries around the world, besides the U.S., for the venture called Uber Elevate. They are Japan, India, Australia, Brazil, and France. Uber plans to start demonstration flights in the cities of Dallas and Los Angeles by 2020. Uber is seeking an international city as the third partner. These three cities will be the first to offer uberAIR flights, with the goals of operating demonstrator flights starting in 2020 and beginning commercial operations in 2023.
“It’s (India) a place we are investing pretty heavily in, it’s very important to us both in our core business and our new business like Eats. We see just amazing adjacencies between the core business and Elevate… The places that the core business has a lot of growth potential, we are very attracted to,” Eric Allison, head of aviation programmes at Uber, told Fortune India in New Delhi, in an interview.
“It is very exciting to think about introducing something like Uber Elevate into a market like Mumbai, or Bangalore, or Delhi, where there is so much congestion or we can see so much benefit by deploying this type of a mobility solution,” said Allison, an aeronautical engineer who joined the company earlier this year.
Uber’s grand plan is to have multiple landing pads, or ‘skyports’ across cities for its fleet of electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOLs) that it is building. Allison says he envisions a system with multiple modes of transportation that are available on the Uber platform, both standalone and woven together. It should enable a person to press a button and have a car pick them up to take them to a skyport, scan the boarding pass, take the aircraft, and have a car or a two-wheeler waiting at the destination skyport.
“Maybe the uberAIR taxis takes you to the Hyperloop, which then takes you to the next thing. That’s feasible. What technology lets you do is not let you think of these modes as silos, bit lets you bring them together in a platform way, then let’s you mix and match them,” he said.
In a presentation at a mobility summit organised by the NITI Aayog in New Delhi, Allison said that an air taxi could cover the distance between Mumbai airport and Churchgate in 10 minutes, a trip that usually takes 100 minutes by car.
This is the second time in the year that an Uber executive has come to India and spoken about the Elevate programme. During his maiden India visit in May, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and had spoken about how the VTOL aircraft will have zero operational emissions and will likely be quiet enough to operate in cities without disturbing the neighbours.
Allison said that in the next few months, the ride-sharing company will be talking to Indian regulators and the local government to iron out the issues in operating such a service in the country.
“Like everywhere, the biggest challenge is going to be regulatory on the local side in terms of the infrastructure development and the take-off and landing rights and operational restrictions, and the airspace side. Those will be the two things that we will need to work on together to figure out,” he said.
Navigating the country’s air laws will be tough. In the U.S., VTOLs will have to comply with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) norms and in Europe with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) rules. Allison says section 23 of the FAA, which governs small aircraft, like Cessna and Cirrus, was revised recently, and that’s where VTOLs will fit in as well.
Uber defines these flying taxis as advanced aircraft of the type that does not exist as yet. This means that in India they will need permissions required for aircraft to fly over cities. As of now, even helicopters have limited permission to fly over cities.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) recently allowed drones to fly commercially. It unveiled its policy on commercial drones and has defined remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) as an unmanned aircraft piloted from a remote pilot station. According to the new policy, the drone flights would be allowed only in the daytime and within “visual line of sight”.
But there is no clarity yet on autonomous air taxis.
Meanwhile, Uber has partnered with five companies to build these aircraft and is working on advancing battery technology. Battery technology has evolved in the past few years because of electric cars, but it hasn’t quite been used to fly planes.
“It is certainly feasible to construct aircraft that use batteries. The key is that you have to trade things off,” he said, explaining that with batteries, one would have a lower range. This means that with batteries, “you can’t do the wide variety of things you can, say, do with a helicopter. But you can do some things very, very well.”
Allison said the technology that Uber will be using is a derivative of the technology that is used by Tesla and other advanced electric cars, which can be tailored to suit their needs. Uber is working with battery cell companies, and has tied up with a company in Taiwan to work on the technology. It said that it was in the process of developing batteries with more potential, which will be commercially viable by the time the company launches its commercial air operations in 2023.
For an all-electric air taxi to work in India, the country will need charging infrastructure which, as of now, is almost negligible.