As a massively valued tech company, Uber has to sell investors on grand visions for its future. Nothing in the company’s portfolio is grander than flying cars–electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) craft that hover and glide quietly and cleanly between futuristic skyports, summoned by an app. And of course, the robotic craft will fly themselves.
That may happen some day–5, 10, or more years from now. The technologies are in development by dozens of companies–many allied with Uber through its Elevate program, which holds its third national conference next week, in Washington, D.C.
But as Uber and its partners gather to talk about the future, the company has conceded that flying cars are already here. They’re called helicopters.
On Wednesday, Uber announced, via a New York Times article, its plans for Uber Copter–a helicopter shuttle service between lower Manhattan and JFK airport in New York City. Launching on July 9, it will ferry Uber’s top-tier Platinum and Diamond members on shared rides for $200 to $225–depending on demand pricing–on big birds with two gas engines and two pilots, operated by a provider called Heliflite.
Uber says it will expand the service to less elite customers soon. And given Uber’s general global-domination modus operandi, it’s plausible that Uber Copter will come to extend well beyond the JFK shuttles.
Far from a service of the future, Uber Copter replicates, on a smaller scale, the model of a five-year-old transport company called Blade. Like Uber Copter, Blade contracts with third-party helicopter providers (not including Heliflite) to transport customers between Manhattan and JFK airport. Blade also serves Newark and LaGuardia airports. After trying different pricing over the years, Blade has settled on a fixed fee of $195 each way for all three airports–including car service at the airport end, but not to or from the Manhattan helipads (as Uber offers).
“There may be no greater validation of Blade’s strategy and number-one market position than Uber entering the Urban Air Mobility market in New York City,” Blade CEO Rob Wiesenthal tells me in a text message on Wednesday.
He has a point. By waiting for the aircraft of the future, Uber has kept itself out of a game that’s already well in play. Blade has had five years to develop a business, and will have many more years before Uber stands a chance of getting its electric planes in the air in appreciable numbers.
Blade operates not only New York City airport shuttles, but charters to places like the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard, the Northern California Wine Country, the Coachella music festival, and other events. It also flies airport shuttles and other trips in the L.A. area and San Francisco Bay Area.
Blade isn’t the only app-based consumer helicopter service. In 2017, for instance, Airbus’s Voom began commuter service in traffic-snarled São Paulo, Brazil. In 2018 Voom expanded to Mexico City, and the company says it will grow more in 2019. Voom told me that North America and Asia are “very interesting markets” for it. Don’t be surprised to see yet more “ride-share” helicopter shuttles pop up in the coming year.
Uber Copter pricing is about in line with what a solo ride in an Uber Black SUV or other luxury private car service would cost. Getting down to mainstream consumer pricing will require ditching expensive pilots in favor of autonomous control and getting economies of scale with a network of rooftop helipads (called vertiports) managing thousands of flights per day over a city like New York.
That may be a long way off. There are exactly zero helicopters approved for autonomous flight anywhere in the world. Furthermore, there are zero eVTOL airframes certified by the FAA or other regulatory bodies. There are not even working prototypes by Uber’s partners ready to start the certification process, at least based on existing announcements. (We may learn more at next week’s Elevate Summit.)
“Generally, it takes 10 years to certify a new type of aircraft,” says Mike Hirschberg, an aeronautical engineer and executive director of the Vertical Flight Society (formerly the American Helicopter Society). And that’s for new designs based on well-known technologies. Uber and partners say they can get their futuristic craft approved in five years or less.
That’s in addition to getting dozens of vertiport construction projects through zoning approvals and built–and past citizen groups up in arms about increased noise and traffic. (Even eVTOLs are not silent. They make a buzzing sound rather than the “whoosh” of a helicopter.) Add onto that the challenge of securing electrical supply for round-the-clock charging of the planes’ massive lithium-ion batteries.
Playing it safe
Given all those barriers, Uber’s slide back to traditional helicopters as an interim strategy is less surprising than it is inevitable.
“Helicopters are the only civilian platform that can take off and land vertically and is FAA certified and has a proven track record of safety,” says Mark Groden, CEO of Skyryse, which he describes as an “urban air transportation company.” Skyryse has not launched a passenger service, but it has run a pilot program serving emergency responders in California.
Contracting with a helicopter service provider is an easy way for Uber to start competing with Blade, Voom, and other coming helicopter services–and to gain some market share and experience.
“We’ve built Uber Copter to provide us with insight and real-world experience as we continue to lay the foundation for Uber Air,” said Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate, in a statement to the press.
“What’s the risk?” says Hirschberg. “They don’t have to buy, operate, or maintain [vehicles]. It’s a very low-risk entry into this market.”
Market share building is something that Uber is very good at–even if it requires heavily subsidized service. Uber Copter’s pricing is in line with Blade’s helicopter shuttle. Blade’s Wiesenthal told me that his company is profitable in its “core market” of the New York City area, the first time he says he’s revealed that publicly. That includes the airport shuttles and pricier flights out of the city to places like the Hamptons. But Uber is hiring out some very big helicopters, with a pair of well-paid pilots, so the economics may not be as favorable.
Both Blade and Skyryse believe that eVTOL will be the future, but potentially far in the future. “Waiting for an eVTOL option could be as many as 15 or even 20 years,” says Groden.
“You have to start flying today,” says Wiesenthal, “and I think Uber is recognizing that.”