By Johana Bhuiyan@JMBooyah May 8, 2018, 10:09pm EDT
Uber gathered industry experts, from regulators to private companies, to discuss the future of aviation as the ride-hail company sees it. Specifically, flying cars.
Through its second-annual flying car summit in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Uber wanted to set the stage for what it hopes will be a network of electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, or unmanned vehicles that use propulsion and rotors to push off and land on the ground vertically.
The company has said it hopes to begin testing a commercial service in Los Angeles and Dallas Fort Worth by 2020, but there are a lot of obstacles Uber has to get over to get to that point. Prime among them is regulation.
In a conversation with Uber Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden, the acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration Dan Elwell said that while he is confident the industry will eventually get the technology right, the agency does not expect to compromise on safety in the meantime.
“What I will tell you unequivocally [is] there will be no degradation in safety as we know it today,” he said.
In 2017, there were zero recorded fatalities in crashes of commercial jets on U.S. soil in 2017, for the fourth year in a row.
“You guys are discovering that the public demands a level of safety in aviation that is unlike any other mode,” Elwell added. “There is absolutely zero tolerance for degradations of safety. [The industry has] to come in at a level that’s 100 years in the making. … I’m confident that this industry is going to come to the table not only with the innovative ideas that have been obvious in the past decade but the safety solutions that make it that much easier to put the regulatory umbrella over it.”
Autonomous aerial vehicles are a substantially different mode of transportation to regulate than autonomous cars, Elwell contended, an arena where Uber has faced backlash after a recent fatality.
“It’s completely different than the discussion of autonomous vehicles on the surface,” he said. “It’s pretty much broad acceptance that autonomous vehicles will bring an immediate improvement of safety by the elimination of things that people bring. … We don’t have that assumption with drones yet.”
Elwell has not personally engaged with the company about regulating flying cars, he told Recode, though the agency’s certification and standards experts are in constant dialogue with the industry.
At multiple points, the conversation became a discussion about some of the approaches to managing and perhaps regulating flying cars that Uber is currently contemplating as part of its internal efforts — not all of which Elwell was enthusiastic about. At one point, Holden suggested creating corridors of airspace that is not managed by the FAA but is instead delegated to another entity that only operates flying cars.
“This is a much longer discussion,” he responded.
“What you just described is what we don’t want. You just described segregated airspace,” he continued. “At the scale you’re talking about — especially in complex dense airspace — my hope is we don’t have to do that. Even if you’re going to do EVTOL from airports into the city, my hope is you’re going to be able to do it in an integrated way.”
While Uber does not want to build these new autonomous aviation vehicles itself, it does hope to give its manufacturing and other research partners the tools to create this new technology in order to accelerate the path to having a commercial network of flying cars.
Holden asked at one point: “We’re building air traffic software — we’re doing that optimistically — basically we’re betting that this technology will be used. … What do you think the best way to engage with the FAA is to make sure we’re aligned?”
Elwell responded that the administration is open to collaborating with the industry but will need time to regulate the technology at the current pace of development.
“You’re bringing to the table things that … its not new to us, but the pace of development is challenging,” he said. “So we need to come together with a creative, innovative mindset but collaborative. … The industry is going to bring to us the solutions. The best way [is to] not only bring to us the technology and the explanation of how it works but how it works safely.”
The company announced today that it wanted to have a commercial flying car service up and running by 2023 in some places. Elwell said that timeline might not be too ambitious.
“But I’m certainly not going to make any commitments,” he said.
At one point, Holden interjected with a suggestion for one metric with which the government might measure safety in unmanned aerial vehicles, saying, “It’s probably something like fatalities per passenger mile or something like that.”
“I don’t want to belabor it [but] we have a very sacred public trust that we’ve all worked hard for,” Elwell responded. “When we introduce something as dramatically new as automated flying vehicles, that is a challenge that has to meet the bar. We’re not going to go backwards, we’re not going to say let’s see how it works … we’re not going to have a certain acceptable accident rate.”
Still, the acting administrator, who served in the FAA under the Bush administration as well, said he would ride in an unmanned aerial vehicle himself and that he was confident the technology would be safely developed in the coming years.