Challenges to Uber’s Plans for a Flying Car Service?

While one day requesting air travel with the convenience of a ride sharing app may seem like a luxury reserved for the ultra-wealthy, Uber already has plans to deliver this service to consumers at an affordable rate.

The idea is that destinations could be entered via an app that would inform of where the closest skyport to you is located. The next step would be to hop on your appropriate aircraft and be flown to a location near your final destination.

Air travel routes would run from one densely populated area to another, but would be no greater than 60 miles away from each other in distance. This limitation is attributed to Uber’s decision to use helicopter airplane hybrids powered by distributed electric propulsion (DEP).

The company claims that the benefit of using DEP over conventionally powered rotor engines is that DEP improves fuel efficiency and performance handling, while reducing field lengths needed for landing, as well as emissions, and noise. Moreover, the airframe that’s been proposed offers its own advantages. The craft is slated to have fixed wings paired with multiple rotors that add to its efficiency and speed, while also producing multiple points of redundancy in the case of a rotor failing.

However, aside from still being some ways away from any form of real world operation, a number of other issues are presented by the project. The field of aviation largely falls within the jurisdiction of the federal government. Federal Aviation Administration regulations mandate that commercial pilot applicants meet certain general eligibility requirements, as well as demonstrating aircraft proficiency through passing a written exam, and completing 250 flight hours. A commercial pilot’s license allows one to be compensated for providing air services, yet this license isn’t cheap. At least one flight training school estimates that acquiring as commercial pilot license with them will set you back a grand total of $18,360. What’s more, that’s assuming you already have a private pilot’s license, the possession of which being a prerequisite for even getting your foot in door to take classes. And to complicate matters even more, before you can receive compensation for transporting people, you must first acquire an air carrier certificate. This will undoubtedly present a dilemma to Uber when it comes to keeping air fares low if it elects to hire pilots under the current regulatory framework

But what about the promises of automation? Uber has notedly made significant strides in investing in autonomous ground vehicles. Yet even assuming that the technology could be ready for real world application tomorrow, a substantial segment of the population feels deeply opposed to boarding an aircraft without a pilot. In addition, certification and regulatory requirements for such vehicles is an area of law that is still largely underdeveloped. There are no current FAA unmanned aircraft certification projects aimed at passenger transport. Uber could perhaps turn to remotely piloting aircraft, but still, this category of flight has not been pursued for FAA certification. And passengers are only scarcely more comfortable with knowing they are on a plane piloted by a person on ground, as they are with the idea of it being controlled solely by a computer program.

On another note, the plan also raises questions about equity and access. It is conceivable that profit motives could lead to unequal levels of development in certain areas, which could negatively impact those areas left out. This issue becomes particularly more salient if Uber were to receive federal funding to offset their infrastructure costs on the proposed project. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits recipients of federal funding from engaging in conduct which disparately impacts a group on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Enforcement of this aspect of the regulation (disparate-impact discrimination) is left solely to the various federal funding agencies. Given that race is heavily tied to economic status, a decision to expand in mostly white affluent areas, while neglecting to make attempts at doing the same in poorer regions populated by racial minorities, could be met with government action. Thus, if Uber is to continue pursuing air transit, it is in their best interest to explore ways of reaching neighborhoods that have traditionally been underserved by transit agencies.