Embraer, Uber Discuss Autonomous Flying Rideshares at SXSW

Mar 14, 2018

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Embraer and Uber executives shared upcoming plans for autonomous flying rideshare transportation at SXSW 2018 this morning during a panel titled: “Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads: Fly eVTOLs.” (eVTOLs are electronic Vertical Take Off and Landing vehicles)

Embraer’s Director of Innovation Antonio Campello and Uber’s Director of Engineering & Aviation Mark Moore discussed the companies’ collaborative vision for the future with Kym McNicholas, host of The Innovators’ Network.

“We’re… expediting the ecosystem [of autonomous transport] right now,” Campello said. “It’s about the entire supply chain — all the real estate companies, the FAA, everyone. A great market strategy combines all the different voices that are present: technical, user voice, but also the regulatory voice. You gotta combine the strategy for all of them to sing in unison to achieve great vision.”

Uber, which also hopes to position itself at the forefront of autonomous road vehicle technology, will hire commercially-rated helicopter pilots for the first several years of the program, until the company is confident that its software algorithm can handle any contingency. “Embraer has an incredible track record of building safe vehicles,” said Moore. The companies are hoping to combine their skill sets “with opportunities for all in this new, Wild, Wild West.”

In order for what’s been dubbed “Uber Elevate” to be successful, Moore said, the aircraft must be community-friendly, efficient, safe and affordable: “For it to be accepted, it’s gotta be a good neighbor — meeting your needs and the community around you.”

This is just one of the autonomous rideshare transportation vehicle prototypes Uber plans to launch in Dallas-Fort Worth by 2023. Image courtesy of Uber.

What You Need To Know

  • Embraer is building out 50+ VTOLs at Uber’s directive
  • By 2020, Uber plans to be flying experimental versions of the vehicles that will power Uber Elevate by 2023
  • The pilot program will launch in Dallas/Fort Worth, Moore said
  • More than 50 companies are in the process of developing VTOLs right now
  • A typical eVTOL trip via Uber will average 23 miles in total distance; the longest trip is only 60 miles
  • The Uber/Embraer hybrids will embrace new technology called distributed electric propulsion that will keep the aircraft 20 decibels quieter than existing helicopters
  • A typical vehicle will be powered by one pilot, transporting four passengers 
  • Uber hopes to set up “air corridors” within public airspace that will be accessible to anyone who meets the private travel requirements
  • The initial Skyport program in Dallas/Fort Worth/Frisco will offer around 10 Skyports, with the very first being built in Frisco
  • A fully mature network will offer 70-100 Skyports within a large metro area like Plano/Frisco/Dallas/Fort Worth
  • If executed fully to scale, Uber Elevate will save commuters at least 50% of their traveling time compared against an existing peak gridlock timeframe 

The companies in partnership chose Dallas as their first market because the region offered the best first opportunity to work with NASA, FAA and the airport to pioneer exactly how this should be, Moore said. “We already know from [market research] that 30% of local Dallas residents want to go to DFW for this new service. What’s really cool is that the two runways at DFW are 1.5 miles apart, and the terminals are in between the runways, so [Uber Elevate passengers] land right at the terminals for the best user experience.”

“DFW [Airport] is one of the best moving forward with new technology,” Moore said, “and this is such a great opportunity [to work with the] best possible partners.”

Ross Perot’s company, Hillwood Properties, is designing Skyports for the initial batch of eVTOLs in Dallas. Before that happens, Uber will install acoustic measuring devices in the neighborhood that will be left in place for a full year. “Embraer will actually design our vehicles for the spectral characteristics,” Moore said. “They’ll actually be able to mask [the vehicles’ sound] signature into the background noise of these areas for the potential Skyports, doing everything they can to be the best neighbors they can.”

Campello added, “We’re talking about bringing the Internet of Things to an Internet of Physical Things, connecting the traffic in a way that people can go everywhere, anytime, on demand. Of course this is not today — it’s in the future — but we’re working very hard to get there.”

Asked what the software would look like in terms of the user experience, Moore said that the rideshare giant anticipates adding Uber Elevate directly into the app. “On the far-most, you’ll see UberAir for a complete multi-modal transportation experience,” he said. “An Uber will take you from your home to the closest Skyport, where you will be pooling with several other individuals.” The idea is to share the ride and the cost of that trip with the other airborne passengers, with another Uber taking travelers to their final destinations. Just as when the automobile was introduced, “this technology will provide completely new solutions to where people want to live, work and play,” Moore said.

“I know some of you are thinking, ‘How can this be affordable?,'” Moore said. “This is the key difference to realize: Every UberX on the ground that’s stuck on the traffic grid during peak hours [travels] at an average speed of 25 mph. eVTOLs have an average of 150 mph — 6x productivity. And by also pooling, UberAir will be able to get 3.5 paying passengers into each vehicle instead of just one person being in an UberX. Combined with that speed and the load factor, that’s a 20x difference. So for every UberX with one person in it, the VTOLs are 20x more productive, and that’s why the economics make sense.”

Moore added a personal anecdote to explain the transportation pain points Uber and Embraer want to resolve. “Right now, I live and work in San Francisco,” Moore said. “It’s insane: don’t take a job in San Francisco.” Moore said it would be cheaper for him to live in Bay Area neighboring vicinities such as Napa Valley, and take that Uber Elevate flight every day than it would be for him to rent housing in San Francisco.

Both Moore and Campello agreed that the biggest hurdle will be that the FAA has to be on board. Campello stressed Embraer’s history of safe aviation technology, saying that “It’s not just about the aircraft. The suppliers, supply chain, everyone, all partners must be working together. The more we work together, the better we can do.”
Campello invited interested audience members to go to EmbraerX.com and leave their feedback: “The more we can perceive what people want, the better the design will be. We want to do something that is truly designed for the people, truly affordable, and that may cause a difference. We are very conscious about everything that we have to do.”

“Just a few companies in aviation have survived the last 50 years, and [Embraer is] one of them, so we know how difficult it is. It’s a new way of transporting people everywhere. The point is that we are developing a new ecosystem.”

Featured image by Katherine Fan for The Points Guy

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