This week, Uber convenes its third Elevate Summit in Washington, D.C., to promote a future of quiet, electric air taxis whisking us from urban rooftop to rooftop for close to the price of an earthly car share. It’s like a science-fiction convention.
Not that these technologies are impossible: Experts I’ve spoken with say they are 5, 10, maybe 15 years away, limited by batteries, infrastructure, and regulations, among other things. To keep that time frame as short as possible, one of Uber’s aircraft makers, Brazil’s Embraer, proposes a deliberately simple aircraft design.
“Embraer could do a very complex design—we have technology to do that,” says Antonio Campello, president and CEO of the company’s “market accelerator” division, EmbraerX, which shared its mock-ups with Fast Company. “A very complex design will not bring very low operating costs, will not bring the reliability that these aircraft need, will not bring the availability that these aircraft need.”
The clearest example is how Embraer approaches Uber’s requirement that aircraft be able to take off and land like a helicopter, as well as fly on wings to conserve energy. Several makers of these so-called electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) craft propose one system for both. Fellow Uber partner Karem Aircraft, for instance, proposes rotors that point up for helicopter mode, then tilt forward for airplane mode. Airbus, which is building its own non-Uber flying car, would use tilting wings, a mechanism the company says it has successfully air-tested.
Embraer instead proposes two sets of rotors: eight atop the wings to lift and lower the craft, and two in the back to push it forward. The design resembles concepts that Embrarer and Uber proposed last year. It is also similar to Cora, an eVTOL backed by Google cofounder Larry Page, which is perhaps the furthest along. Cora, whose former head, Eric Allison, now heads Uber Elevate, declined to comment for this story.
Keeping it familiar
After surveying potential future fliers, Embraer opted for a simple cabin design. “Some people say, ‘I want these aircraft to be like an SUV, because I don’t like to feel like being in an aircraft,'” says Campello. A design that feels familiar, like an automobile, also feels safer, according to the company’s research.
Embraer’s design (which does not have a name) might be closer to a shuttle van than an SUV, though, due to the large doors and ability to accommodate passengers in wheelchairs. Embraer has also surveyed blind people to understand their needs and expectations.
Finally, Campello promises that the craft will be simple to fly, thanks to partial automation. Uber and other eVTOL boosters have tempered initial exuberance for autonomous craft, conceding that pilots will be required for some time. That will be a serious hit to affordability, replacing a seat for a paying customer with one for a highly paid operator.
Far from ready
In addition to pretty renderings, Embraer has a full-scale mock-up of the design, says Campello, but nothing that’s ready to fly. “This probably will not be the last configuration that we’re going to present to commercial operation because it’s part of the process to evolve,” he says.
So the clock hasn’t even started ticking on the long process of getting a design certified for flight. That typically takes 10 years for even a conventional design, says Mike Hirschberg, an aeronautical engineer and executive director of the Vertical Flight Society. Though a big eVTOL supporter, Hirschberg cautions that evaluating these new technologies will present a lot of challenges to regulatory authorities like the FAA in the United States and EASA in Europe. (Uber’s announcement last week of a New York City ride-sharing program using traditional helicopters is a sign that it’s not pinning all its hopes on sci-fi craft coming to market soon.)
“Today we are in the early stage of this project,” says Campello. “We don’t feel comfortable to disclose dates that may experience change because it’s just starting in a new market and new product.”