On The Radar
Uber Elevate has published a white paper updating its perspective on urban air mobility, advanced air mobility, or whatever term it is we’re supposed to use to describe how new aircraft can transform the way people and things get moved from one place to another. “Uber Air: Designing for the Community” is a long-awaited update on the ride-hailing group’s plans. It arrives almost exactly four years after the company’s October 2016 white paper (“Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation”), which has been widely regarded as a seminal statement of intent for this exciting sector.
Of course, much has changed since October 2016. Most notably, for instance, how could the original white paper’s authors possibly have foreseen a global pandemic and how this might reshape attitudes to travel?
But more recently, the industry rumor mill has been ringing with speculation that the Uber group is actively seeking a buyer for its Elevate division. Predictably, it is declining to comment on reports that existing Uber Elevate partners Joby Aviation and Hyundai are in the frame to acquire the nascent business. This begs the question as to how the operation would be valued, given that it remains little more than a concept, albeit backed up with extensive preparatory work.
Nonetheless, as described in the new white paper, the business model for the planned Uber Air service appears fundamentally unchanged. It still aims to launch before the end of 2023 in one or both of its early adopter cities Dallas or Los Angeles. “We seek to build and scale Uber Air, a multimodal transportation product that seamlessly integrates first- and last-mile ground transportation with a time-saving intra-city flight, in a way that is holistically sustainable for the cities and citizens that we will serve,” the company says.
The white paper spells out the remaining steps Uber intends to take in the next 36 months or so to get initial services up and running in early-adopter cities Dallas and Los Angeles. Much of this is couched in familiar management-school-speak, such as “connecting with the broader ecosystem of stakeholders” and “defining community engagement goals and objectives.” At 36 pages, the document builds on much of the detail laid out in the 100-page epic the company published back in 2016.
But the 2020 white paper addresses plenty of important new specifics, such as Uber Elevate’s Common Reference Models for the aircraft it expects its partner manufacturers to provide and the ramifications of key policy documents such as the FAA’s June 2020 Concept of Operations for Urban Air Mobility.
There is also substantial discussion of lessons learned from the Uber Copter service trialed in New York City (but suspended in the wake of the Covid pandemic). This was based on the use of chartered helicopters to provide a model for integrating flights with ground transportation connections.
Looking ahead, Uber has committed to adopting the International Association for Public Participation’s “Public Participation Spectrum” to engage with local, state, and national governments on service implementation, and all that this entails in terms of permits and accountability.
Some might say that the 2020 white paper displays a more measured, and even humble, approach to a business opportunity in which Uber was among the first to identify revolutionary potential. Now, there are phrases such as the “crawl-walk-run reality” and “ensuring equitable access” to recognize that the new mode of transportation may not have deep roots if it is seen as the sole, elite domain of the 1 percent.
The rebooted manifesto for urban air mobility reaches a crescendo with a rallying cry for holistic environmental and economic sustainability, built on dramatically shrinking aviation’s carbon footprint, creating jobs, and transforming transportation within and between cities.
At face value, it is a statement of serious intent for Uber Elevate at the end of a year in which some observers have questioned whether the company could see through its ambitious plans given that it has still not achieved profitability. So, if the rumored efforts to sell Uber Elevate are really underway, then maybe this white paper is as much a prospectus as a manifesto.