No longer a total figment of science fiction, flying taxis are attracting big investment from dozens of companies. One star player is Zee.Aero, a division of Google co-founder Larry Page‘s company Kitty Hawk. In March, Zee.Aero emerged from semi-stealth mode and flew an electric craft called Cora, which is slated to begin short-trip service in New Zealand in the coming years. Cora can vertically take off and land like a helicopter (a process called VTOL) from mini-airports–and transition to an airplane for power-saving flight.
Eric Allison graduated from his PhD program in aeronautics at Stanford to start Zee.Aero (now called Cora) and eventually became its CEO. Now he has jumped to Uber to head up its Elevate ambitions. Having gotten one plane in the air, Allison aims to build a network of electric VTOL providers, mini-airport operators, and logistics companies under the umbrella of Uber’s Elevate program.
Uber and its partners intend to start demonstration flights in Dallas, Los Angeles, and possibly other cities by 2020, and launch a commercial service called uberAIR in 2023. They will compete against companies building their own systems, including Lilium and Airbus Vahana.
In order to realize its dreams, Elevate has to tackle myriad challenges, such as extending battery life, developing an on-demand flight booking and routing system, and working with the FAA to get aircraft certified and flight routes approved. It is a tremendously ambitious plan for any company—let alone one that’s losing billions of dollars per year.
Allison recently sat down with Fast Company for his first interview since becoming head of Uber Elevate in March. Here are some highlights from our discussion, edited for clarity.
Fast Company: What made you want to come over to Uber?
Eric Allison: I was really excited about the approach the team is taking. I’ve known a bunch of the people that have been working on this for a long time.
FC: How did you get started with Zee Aero?
EA: I started a temporary, six-month job [in 2007] with this professor at Stanford named Ilan Kroo, a famous aerodynamicist. One thing led to another, and three years later I helped him get Zee going.
I had diverse interests. I had taken all the [physics] classes, I had majored in control theory, I was working on composites. So I had this multivariable background that worked really well for developing electric airplanes.
FC: What are the first things on your list to do at Uber?
EA: One of the things that really impressed me was the first-principles thinking that Uber’s taking. They built this business saying, look there’s this problem in the world that needs solving, and this is what the characteristics of a solution look like.
So [we’re] taking this to the next level and really starting to detail out what [Uber Elevate] needs to be at scale. What do you have to do to make this business case in all these different ways? How does the ecosystem grow, and what are the opportunities for value to be created in this system for other people?
FC: Can you give an example?
EA: Think about the problem of mass operations. Our analysis and the simulations that we’re doing suggest that for a reasonably sized metro area—Dallas, Los Angeles, these places that we’re looking at—the demand is going to support [several] thousands of electric VTOL aircraft at any one time.
If you look at the aviation system right now, the schedules are pre-set. And even then, if you have a weather delay that floats through Chicago, or a nor’easter comes to the East Coast and shuts down Dulles and Philadelphia [airports], the waves just ripple through the system.
If you’re booking a [flight] in real time in the same way that you book a ride on Uber right now, and this all has to link together seamlessly, you can imagine that the opportunities for things to go awry are large.
FC: Might there be times when severe weather grounds uberAIR for a few hours? Maybe you have to re-route people to Uber cars?
EA: Totally. There will be weather contingencies built into this whole system. The types of vehicles we’re talking about can handle a fair bit of adverse weather, but adverse weather [sometimes even] grounds full-size airplanes today.
FC: What do you think are the hardest problems to be solved?
EA: One of them is a bit of a meta-problem—this whole idea of building an ecosystem. We want to build these partnerships, with infrastructure [providers], with subsystem suppliers. It’s going to be very, very hard for any one person to dominate [the sector], because it’s an ecosystem. And really demonstrating the value of agreeing on an ecosystem, I think that’s a pretty hard problem in a lot of ways.
FC: Do you need to have competitors for this ecosystem?
EA: I think that there will be. I think that in building an ecosystem you run the risk of building it out for these competitors, too.
FC: One of the things that’s required is a big jump in battery capacity, right?
EA: The batteries are just about good enough right now in many key metrics. They’re certainly good enough to do the demonstration flights in 2020. And we’ll be working really hard with suppliers to drive the advances that need to happen. But they don’t need a quantum leap.
FC: Uber is a controversial company. You were probably thinking about this job when a lot of turmoil was happening at Uber.
EA: Absolutely. I’m just really excited about where Uber is right now, and I got a chance to talk with [CEO] Dara [Khosrowshahi] before I joined and did my [due] diligence on things.
FC: Uber’s made some mistakes, pissed people off in the past. Is that going to make your work harder? Do you have some answers for skeptics?
EA: One of the things that I’ve learned so far is that the policy team is pretty sharp, and that they seem to have a really good understanding of both local as well as national-level priorities. So I’m really excited to glean learnings from their past experiences and apply them going forward.
FC: Anything else you want to tell me?
EA: The thing that I find exciting is that Uber thinks about things at scale, not just a national scale but a global scale. And it’s that type of thinking that I’m so excited about for what we’re going to do with Uber Elevate.