A leading proponent of advanced air mobility (AAM) has dismissed as unsustainable the air taxi/ride-hailing business model formerly advocated by Uber through its Elevate platform. Speaking at last week’s Australian Association of Unmanned Systems (AAUS) conference, Clem Newton-Brown, who is CEO of infrastructure developer Skyportz, welcomed what he characterized as the demise of Uber’s “unrealistic vision” for eVTOL aircraft operations.
In December 2020, Joby Aviation acquired Uber Elevate in a deal that saw parent company Uber Technologies invest a further $75 million in the eVTOL aircraft developer (having previously invested $50 million). Joby has not explained how it might exploit the Elevate platform but the company is committed to launching air taxi services in a number of undisclosed cities beginning in 2024.
“In decades to come," Newton-Brown said, "we may well have inner-city skyport towers capable of handling 1,000 aircraft movements per hour as touted by Uber Air, but this is an unhelpful vision to be promoting before we even have certified aircraft operating,”
Newton-Brown, who was formerly a member of parliament in the Australian state of Victoria and also runs a property and planning company called Whitemark, is looking to play a leading role in the development of infrastructure to support eVTOL aircraft operations. He is a member of the Australian government’s National Emerging Aviation Technologies committee, as well as being involved in NASA’s AAM working group and serving as chair for the AAUS’s urban aerial mobility advisory group.
According to Newton-Brown, the AAM sector’s development is more likely to hinge on applications other than purely short-range urban air taxi services and should also focus on providing transportation over longer distances and for multiple purposes.
“My view is that urban aerial mobility, such as hopping around city rooftops, is the last type of operation we will see when the industry is mature,” he told FutureFlight. “For the short term, I see existing helicopter tourism routes providing a viable business proposition as people will pay a premium for an experience such as flying to a winery for lunch, whereas for pure transport they will compare the cost [with that of] other forms of transport that will be more economical.” In his view, it is through these longer, regional services that AAM pioneers will be able to get their business models up and running as the industry establishes that it can safely deliver a sound value proposition.
Uber Elevate had identified Melbourne, Australia, as an early-adopter market for air taxi services that might have been provided by some of its manufacturing partners, which at the time included Joby and several other eVTOL aircraft developers. Newton-Brown, who is based in Melbourne, still views the city as a strong candidate for eVTOL operations and said that the Australian government supports the development of an air taxi ecosystem, having already backed new services such as Google Wing’s drone deliveries.
Embraer’s Eve Urban Air Mobility division has identified Melbourne as one of the cities where it would like to establish operations for its planned eVTOL aircraft. In December 2020, it announced a partnership with Airservices Australia to develop these plans. Embraer’s Atech subsidiary is active in air traffic management and has extensive experience supporting helicopter operations in cities such as Sao Paulo in Brazil.
Skyportz says it wants to support eVTOL aircraft manufacturers and operators to get established in the Australian market. “I want to make it easy for a Joby or an Archer to make the decision to come into the Australian market early,” said Newton-Brown. “We have a range of property partners ready to facilitate skyport construction, regional and suburban airports, academia, airport planners, engineers, town planners, infrastructure investors, and helicopter operators with existing tourist routes all ready to welcome an airframer into Australia.”
At the same time, Newton-Brown cautioned against a situation in which one eVTOL developer gains a monopoly in terms of access to limited infrastructure in early air taxi markets. “Where Uber Elevate could have provided a really positive input was in the area of standardization of skyports to ensure they were not specific to just one airframe,” he maintained. “The early expectations were that the half dozen or so ‘partners’ would all have been utilized in an Uber Elevate network.
"Now the danger is that the first to certification will end up securing the prime skyport sites, perhaps to the exclusion of later entrants who may create superior aircraft," Newton-Brown continued. "There is a role for governments and a responsibility for skyport infrastructure developers to keep things open for all future entrants.”