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Uber, Embraer On Pace To Roll Out Flying Autonomous Taxis In 2023

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Uber, Embraer On Pace To Roll Out Flying Autonomous Taxis In 2023
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Passenger drones have been an American dream for years now, and Embraer SA (ADR) (NYSE: ERJ) and Uber said the reality is imminent.

The partners, who announced in May their pursuits to market electric vertical take-off and landing, or eVTOL, systems by 2024, said this week that the first flights will take place by the end of 2023.

Leveraging Uber’s expertise in user experience and Embraer’s leadership in commercial aviation, the pair plans to populate the skies of major metropolitan areas with proprietary airtaxis — electric, autonomous mobility services.

“We're building a whole new aviation market here,” Mark Moore, a NASA veteran and Uber’s director of engineering and aviation, said at the South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

Positive Competition

Uber and Embraer are racing against 52 other tech, auto and aerospace companies who have announced competing eVTOL projects since May. But they are undaunted.

“Having more competitors [and] having more companies trying to do this is positive, it’s not negative,” Antonio Campello, CEO of Embraer’s business innovation center, said during the SXSW session. “We are in a movement now that’s about expediting the ecosystem … it's not a trend that is far in the future.”

Rivals are pursuing different strategies than that of Uber and Embraer, from accelerated timelines to vertical integration. Uber-Embraer claim to have it right.

“It’s kind of that Silicon Valley hubris that we see sometimes,” Moore said. “ ... We're trying to bring the best of aerospace and the best of Silicon Valley together. Our strategy instead is not trying to do it all, but building a collaborative ecosystem.”

Anticipating Regulation

Strategy is on their side, and they’re working to win regulators over too, Moore said.

“We’re committed to giving the FAA and regulatory authorities the data that they need to prove that the software for autonomy is safe." 

The aircraft will be staffed by commercially rated helicopter pilots for the first several years and several million flight miles to demonstrate the software can handle all contingencies. This priority may delay Uber and Embraer’s exploitation of the autonomy hype.

“Autonomous is going to take some time because we need a lot of hours of operation to prove everything we need to prove,” Campello said.

Economic Implications

When they’re finally ready for rollout, though, the eVTOLs are intended to have significant economic impact on gridlocked metropolitan areas.

For one, they’re expected to save commuters time and money. Moore confirmed the aircraft travel about 150 miles per hour versus the 25 miles per hour averaged by peak-hour Uber X vehicles. Between the speed variance and the economics of transporting four air passengers against one car passenger, Uber calculates a 20-times cost difference.

“Our vehicles in the air are 20 times more productive,” Moore said. “[They] amortize very effectively by their high productivity.”

At the same time, the aircraft will cut crosstown rush hour transportation times from 2 hours to 9 minutes, making it easier for locals to live and work in different parts of a city.

“We see this technology as being able to provide completely new solutions for where people live, work and play,” Moore said.

That may help diminish rising costs of living, and not just for the upper class.

“Uber has no interest if this is just an elite product,” the executive said. “We started as a black car service but quickly realized there was a much better opportunity to impact everyone's life. That’s why we are committed to making this being a mainstream transportation solution.”

As a widely accessible transportation system, eVTOLs are meant to solve issues of urban congestion without requiring major investments in new roads or rails.

“Those cities need new transportation options besides spending tens of billions of dollars on new subway systems that are going to take 20 years to develop,” Moore said. “The cool thing about this new transportation solution is we're burdening these vehicles with tremendous capabilities to let the infrastructure be very minimalistic and low cost.”

The Technology

The Uber-Embraer aircraft are designed to seat four passengers and a pilot; have redundant propulsion systems to continue functioning even if many parts fail; include IoT communication software; and sustain a 60-mile trip. The batteries are nearly ready to sustain that distance, Moore said.

Users will be able to book or hail an aircraft with an app, jut as they do with Uber cars, and fly between a 70-to-100-skyport network across a metropolitan area — a system size Moore said can save consumers at least 50 percent of travel time from existing peak gridlock.

Uber will manage flight paths with proprietary communications systems that seamlessly integrate transportation network management and airspace traffic management.

The team spent the last year laying a foundation for the infrastructure and regulatory requirements, and they aim to fly experimental versions in Dallas-Fort Worth in 2020 to prove the system’s safety and efficiency, Moore said. The beta testing will launch at the DFW airport in collaboration with Hillwood Properties, which will develop 10 skyports atop terminal parking garages.

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Photo courtesy of Uber. 

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